KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.
CRAIG WATTS: It really revolves around the environmental justice issues and these operations propping up in these communities. Like Sherri said, that don't really have a lot of political clout, but these folks have fought back.
KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show we talk with Sherri Dugger and Craig Watts with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
KAYTE YOUNG: We talk about the work they're doing to support people living in rural communities, dealing with the consequences of factory farming operations located in their neighborhoods, and we talk about the new documentary on the topic, 'The smell of money'.
KAYTE YOUNG: That conversation's just ahead. Stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listing to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young.
KAYTE YOUNG: The EPA estimates that agriculture accounted for more than 11% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. Globally food systems contribute closer to one third of the total, with livestock accounting for roughly half of those emissions from farms.
KAYTE YOUNG: It's clear that how we produce food on the planet needs to change, and no where is it more obvious than in the front yard of a pink house on a country road in Eastern North Carolina. That pink house belongs to Elsie Herring. Her grandfather survived slavery and purchased the land and it's been in the family ever since.
KAYTE YOUNG: Elsie's house is situated down the road from a confined animal feeding operation, a CAFO, which houses thousands of hogs in front of a giant rose colored lagoon filled with their waste. That waste untreated gets sprayed on the field next to Elsie's house. Sometimes the spray drifts into her yard, onto her clothes hanging on the line and even into her house. It's pretty disgusting and the stench in the air is constant.
KAYTE YOUNG: Sometimes when the unpleasant often horrifying aspects of our food system come up in conversation, I hear people talk about their personal consumer choices. That's why I don't eat meat they say or that's why I buy food from local farmers and I get it, that's my first response too, but more and more it's becoming clear that vote with your dollar solutions aren't enough or maybe it's just that they take too long. When it comes to action on climate change, we're running out of time. A systems approach is needed to address these larger challenges. That's why I was excited to have the chance to talk with our guests today.
SHERRI DUGGER: I am Sherri Dugger and I'm the Executive Director with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
CRAIG WATTS: I'm Craig Watts. I am Field Director of Operations for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
SHERRI DUGGER: Socially Responsible Agriculture Project is a national non-profit organization. We all work remote all over the country. We work with communities to protect themselves from incoming or expanding concentrated animal feeding operations or factory farms as some people might know them. So the operations where animals are confined inside of buildings to be raised for food and sometimes thousands or millions of animals in buildings.
KAYTE YOUNG: So it's completely focused on the confine animal feeding operations?
SHERRI DUGGER: Yeah, they're called CAFOs. We mostly work with communities who are facing incoming or expanding operations at factory farms, but we also have been getting a lot of requests lately from people who are experiencing water pollution issues, odors, that sort of thing from other types of industrial agricultural operations like slaughter houses. They have these buildings called methane digesters which help to convert the manure that's produced from these CAFOs into a gas used for energy. So there's a lot of pollution involved in all of those different types of operations and we're seeing a lot of increase in requests from communities experiencing harms from some of those other types of operations. We work mostly with communities who are facing these harms from animal operations.
KAYTE YOUNG: I would like to know a little bit about each of you and how you got into this kind of work. We can start with you Craig.
CRAIG WATTS: Sure. I actually was a contract farmer who raised animals in these CAFOs. I did that for 23 and a half years. I figured out very early on that I was basically a surf with a mortgage, an indenture serving on my own property because they call us independent contractors but that's a joke. They tell us what to do, dictate the terms and I just got really disillusioned with the whole system, the operation specifically around the farmers as how they were basically treated as an expendable resource, but they'll pull the farmer out as a shield to prop up the energy saying look, we're great but the American farmer when we were struggling and then I guess just at some point in time it was an accumulative affect of a lot of little things.
CRAIG WATTS: I just felt like at the end of the day the consumer was my boss. I had a contract with the chicken company but at the end of the day the consumer was my boss and what I was seeing presented on labels and on the advertising you see on TV was so far removed from what I saw every day that I felt like I was going to give the consumers a real shot at what this looks like every day when I come to work.
CRAIG WATTS: It's not the white picket fence. It's not the nice red barn. It's not ma and pa holding the pitch fork anymore. What we do is we basically raise chickens in warehouses and so, it was a long story but I actually had an animal advocate group come in and film and so we put it on YouTube and the New York Times picked it up. It got up on the Reddit board. I think in 24 there was a million views and so people got really upset, which was the plan, I'm glad they did and I want to say that we changed the way the industry does business a little bit, but I'm sure we really did. I think we put their PR people doing double time but that's kind of how I got into this work and the a lady that worked with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project and I had been friends for about ten years and I exited my contract in 2016 and she knew that I was out there. I didn't have plan B. If you get out of it I recommend a plan B, but she said we're looking for some people and so SRAP brought me on as a consultant.
CRAIG WATTS: I didn't exactly fit in to what they were doing but they saw merit in what I was doing and so got involved with them and enjoyed it and Sherri came on a couple of years later and moved me on staff and that's how I got here.
KAYTE YOUNG: You said you felt like you were a surf on your own land. A lot of people don't necessarily understand how contract farming works.
CRAIG WATTS: Well the way the contract poacher works is basically the company owns the birds and the company owns the feed. The farmer supplies the land, he goes out and borrows the money. In my case it was about half a million dollars, now it's millions of dollars and they build the buildings to these integrator specs and a lot of times in those areas there's only one, maybe two integrators that you can choose from, so it's not like if you're working at sears and you don't like and you want to get a job at Lows, it doesn't work that way.
KAYTE YOUNG: Quick note. An integrator is the company that the farmer has the contract with.
CRAIG WATTS: You're half a million dollars in and debt makes men very pliable and you do things that maybe aren't in your best interests, but you do it because you've got your home and your farm mortgaged and I had kids. A lot of people get up every day going to work to jobs they hate, it's not fun, but a lot of us do it. So I had a picture of my kids and every time I'd walk into the houses I would cap it and that kind of reminded me why I was there. I wish I'd have got out earlier and started life over at 40, but I was 50 when I started life over. But that's water under the bridge and it's a lot better being on the advocacy side of it and actually helping people than participating in something that's so bad for the communities, the animals, the farmers, you name it. There's nothing positive about it.
SHERRI DUGGER: So when he signs on with say Tyson or Perdue or one of these chicken companies, what happens is this farmer goes into debt as Craig mentioned and the farmer takes on the risk. They take on the risk of the debt, they take on the risk of the manure because they have to manage all of the waste that comes out of these animals which can either look like a football field size manure lagoon if we're talking about hogs.
SHERRI DUGGER: So they have to have enough space on their land where they're going to put essentially all of the waste that comes from these millions of animals or thousands of animals, hundreds of thousands of animals into one area and then that's got to be dealt with, either sprayed on the fields, on corn and soya bean fields etc. So all of these problems essentially are laid on the farmer whereas the birds themselves are owned by the Tyson or Perdue or whatever these chicken companies are. They dictate to the farmer how much medicine to give them, how much feed they can give them etc. Basically Craig in that situation was a baby sitter. Is that correct?
CRAIG WATTS: Chicken daycare yes.
SHERRI DUGGER: Chicken daycare and so but he's taking on all of that risk for his family and dealing with if there's a pollution incident it's on him and the corporation stays protected.
CRAIG WATTS: There was an episode of John Oliver back in 2015 and in his own unique way he did a very good job at laying out the issues with contract farmers and he put it like this. He said everything that makes money the company owns, everything that costs money the farmer owns. That was about a good an explanation as I've ever heard, in layman's terms.
KAYTE YOUNG: I definitely want to follow up with some of that, but I want to ask you again Sherri a little bit about your background and how you got into this work.
SHERRI DUGGER: A very long time ago I went to school here at IU and I studied journalism and English and was not involved in advocacy whatsoever. Wasn't involved in agriculture and food etc. After several years moving around the country and kind of growing up a little bit I came back to Indiana to live, was working as an editor. I was editing a publication called Farm Indiana and through that was really learning about food and agriculture through stories, through interviews, editing and assigning stories about the various farms around the state, and really became a bias journalist in terms of the types of stories I wanted to write about and support and the types of stories I didn't and really learned what a concentrated animal feeding operation was, what the impact of that operation was on the local communities, how it extracted.
SHERRI DUGGER: These larger farms extract resources and wealth from local communities. They harm communities through the pollutions that's caused from these operations, the antibiotics that are in the animals, public health has impacted the environment, climate etc. So as Craig kind of alluded to earlier in one of his answers, the industrial agriculture system really profits the corporations that are controlling the system and essentially no one else. So what Socially Responsible Agriculture Project does is advocate for a system where everyone can thrive. Everyone involved in that food system from seed to plate which is everyone because we all eat. So in the process of learning about these things through stories I actually was trying to really promote this Farm Indiana publication in a direction around sustainable agriculture and promoting family farms.
SHERRI DUGGER: In 2017 I started working with Indiana Farmers Union and that really launched me into an advocacy realm instead of in journalism. I left journalism behind in 2016 and I started working first learning about the issues in the terms of Independent Family Farmers and how they're struggling in this really consolidated and concentrated food and agriculture system where the corporations are keeping control from every aspect of how food is produced and raised in this country, and so eventually found my way to SRAP in April 2020 right at the beginning of the pandemic.
KAYTE YOUNG: SRAP again is the organization that Sherri Dugger leads, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
SHERRI DUGGER: And here we are today. So we're actually fighting on behalf of rural communities trying to project themselves. Often times these are communities, these operations are sited next to communities that lack the political power to be able to fight back. They lack the financial resources that they need to be able to fight back, so SRAP really goes to work to help to level the playing field in whatever way we can, either by helping them participate in a permit process. Helping them build relationships with regulators, government officials who might be able to actually enforce any regulation that might be out there for these corporations who are polluting their communities. We can try to work with them to get them legal assistance. If we can't ourselves provide the expertize that they need we'll try to find the experts to be able to help them in whatever way makes the most sense.
SHERRI DUGGER: So we help them to organize their communities to make sure that their voices are heard essentially and to help them tell their stories and their lived experiences to people who can possibly make a difference.
KAYTE YOUNG: And you've come to the IU campus for the screening of the documentary film, 'The Smell of Money'. Can you tell us about that film staring with the title. What does the 'The Smell of Money' refer to?
SHERRI DUGGER: Well I can give my version of it which is what I've heard whenever I've seen comments or commentary when people are talking about these operations and the smell that comes from these manure lagoons where all of this waste is held and when they're spraying it on fields etc. Often times in real communities the one thing that they'll say, maybe Craig will agree with this or not. But the one thing they'll say is, "that's the smell of money". These people are making money and that's what it smells like.
CRAIG WATTS: Yes and if you go back to the movie, Food Inc, the guy's window's rolled down and they're driving through not hogs but chicken CAFOs and they're spreading the manure and that's the first thing he says, it smells like money to me. Hence that's where the title of the movie came from.
SHERRI DUGGER: So that's how they try to justify it as this is the best way to make money.
CRAIG WATTS: But it isn't in the nose of the beholder. It doesn't smell like money to everybody.
KAYTE YOUNG: Let's listen to a short clip from the film and then we'll hear more from Craig Watts. The first voice you'll hear is from Dr Steve Wing, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
DR STEVE WING: What I learned from the Eastern North Carolina residence is that the facilities in their communities were not like my neighbors in Chatham County, North Carolina. They were industrialized facilities that produced hundreds and more often thousands of animals in one location and the concentration resulting in impacts on the neighbors.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Dr Steve Wing who is no longer with us unfortunately. He sat down and he took a map of the old slave maps of North Carolina and he took a map of the hog CAFOs, laid one on top of the other. It's almost a perfect match.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER 2: That's how we discovered that all of these animals were in Eastern North Carolina and that's when the term, Environmental Racism came into play because we talk about Eastern North Carolina, you're talking about predominant African American, Native American, Latino communities. Again people of color. The Eastern North Carolina is the dumping grounds for North Carolina. We always say whatever white people don't want in their backyards, come to Eastern North Carolina we'll show it to you, because it's here.
CRAIG WATTS: The film maker and the producer are both friends of mine. They started working on this project before I met them about four years and there was just an incredible activists in rural North Carolina and Duplin County and Samson County, and Duplin County has the distinction of having more hogs in that county than any other county in the United States of America. Some look at that as a curse, some look at it as a blessing. The movie I think spells out it probably is not a blessing. But I knew Elsie Herring who the film basically revolves around was her struggle and I mean it starts out in 1999 and she's filming them spraying the manure right on her house. She had to bring her clothes in from the clothes line, that kind of stuff and she was just such a strong lady.
CRAIG WATTS: It really revolves around the environmental justice issues and these operations propping up in these communities. Like Sherri said, they don't really have a lot of political clout, but these folks have fought back and to me I had to kind of reconcile some emotions because I knew Elsie and part of the film is her funeral and you think Elsie fought all this time. But then I got to thinking, no this films going, she's still fighting and I met Elsie probably five or six years ago and she says Craig, I appreciate you seeing both sides of it and said Miss Elsie there's only one side of it and you and I are both on it, that's the right side. So she was real special to me, and then there's a couple more folks in the film that I knew, Dr Steve Wing from Chapel Hill who did a lot of research for the community and Don Webb was another individual that I had met like one time and he was a fighter too and it's just an incredible film and to me it was really hard to watch the first time. It's very powerful.
KAYTE YOUNG: That was Craig Watts, Director of Field Operations for Socially Responsible Agriculture Project for SRAP and we're also talking with SRAP Director, Sherri Dugger. We'll be back with more from our conversation in just a moment.
KAYTE YOUNG: Welcome back to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young and I'm talking with Craig Watts and Sherri Dugger.
KAYTE YOUNG: We're talking about the documentary, 'The Smell of Money'. The film was directed and produced by Shawn Bannon, writer and produced by Jamie Burger and it's being presented by the organization that Sherri and Craig work with, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project or SRAP. Let's return to our conversation.
KAYTE YOUNG: So there's many disturbing consequences related to the confined animal feeding operations, from animal cruelty, the horrendous working conditions, the safety of the food that's produced. But this film has more of an environmental justice focus to it. It's about the conditions that these operations are creating in the communities where they're situated. So could you talk about some of the problems that the residents encounter when they live close to these facilities?
SHERRI DUGGER: Yes. So I think Craig mentioned some of that. I think often times they're in situations where they actually can't even have a quality of life outside of their home. They feel trapped inside their homes because of the horrendous smell that's outside when they go outdoors, the spray. They talk in the film about the fact that they have been sprayed on with manure, animal manure. I don't know if you can imagine what that would be like. I cannot imagine what that would be like. But they live with that reality and the thing about these operations, the corporations try to present their products as having been raised by these wholesome family farms.
SHERRI DUGGER: Wholesome family farms are also good neighbors and neighbors don't spray manure on their neighbors and so that's one of the things that we've argued for in our work is corporations are not good neighbors. The industry is not a good neighbor. These are multinational corporations that control this system and they are not in these communities building relationships, building trust and caring about their neighbors and so I think that's what we really see in full force in this film is that these are human lives and they're being impacted every day. They don't have quality of life, their property value has decreased because of these operations being nearby.
SHERRI DUGGER: Often times they feel trapped in these homes. They want to stay there because they're their homes, this is their land and yet if they wanted to leave they couldn't because they can't even sell their home and that's the reality. If you can't live there because it's killing you, literally killing you or killing your family and you have to go, then you just have to walk away from that investment and try to figure out how to pick up the pieces and continue to pay for it or go bankrupt.
CRAIG WATTS: And the consolidation of these companies in agriculture, I mean it doesn't look anything like American farming as most people would think. It's more set up like a Soviet pole up bureau, central command of control. Decisions that are being made for these residents in Duplin County is being made in a boardroom a 1000 miles away. Those people don't care about those folks in Duplin County and Sherri's exactly right. Neighbors don't do neighbors that way. Not good neighbors anyway.
KAYTE YOUNG: So the environmental justice piece comes in when you consider the socioeconomic status of some of the people who are living closest to these operations right. Like you talked about how a lot of times they're sited.
SHERRI DUGGER: On purpose.
KAYTE YOUNG: That was my question.
SHERRI DUGGER: It's absolutely on purpose. It's done because they know that they don't have the political clout and the finances as I said to be able to fight back and so that's where SRAP at its heart is about equity. Like how can we level the playing field for them? How can we get the resources to them that they need to be able to oppose these operations or at least to educate them in a way and we have several different programs. One is that community support. So if the phone rings or we get an email, somebody finds us through an internet search or through listening to a podcast or whatever, word of mouth often times is how people find us. They'll come to us and say, this is coming
in, I heard about it, I'm scared, I don't know what it's going to do to us but I'm reading things online, it's freaking me out, what can I do, and so then we go to work to be able to help them, as I said, organize their community to educate them about their options, to be able to help them participate in that permitting process etc. but beyond that we have other programs.
SHERRI DUGGER: One is called the Water Rangers program. So if the operation is still going to get built, we can actually train them to use EPA water monitoring techniques to be able to make sure that they get not only a baseline level of what the pollution is or if there is even pollution in their water when that operation is built, but then we can help to keep up with them so that they can learn how to monitor the water, make sure that there's not pollution occurring and if it is, to help them build those relationships with government officials to be able to actually hold those corporations accountable.
SHERRI DUGGER: So that's our second program that we have. A third is a food and farm network program where we're actually working with these community members beyond that initial CAFO site fight as it were, and that's really to get them to advocate for a better food and agriculture systems to get them to advocate for sustainable agriculture to actually get them to advocate for a system of agriculture that works for these communities rather than extracting the wealth and the health of these communities, and then our last program is actually one that Craig and I came up with just in the very first conversation that we had together when I came to SRAP and I was asking him, what do you want to do here or I said what's your dream job I think and I was like no wrong answer, what's your dream job Craig and he said, I would really like to be able to manage a team of people like me, and so my response was well why can't you? Let's try to figure out what that looks like and so we developed the Contract Grower Transition Program, which is essentially, we have these farmers like Craig who are stuck in the system, they literally feel stuck because of the millions of dollars worth of debt, because there's only two integrators or chicken companies that are there that they can choose from, they feel like they can't speak up, they feel scared, because if they get that contract taken away and they've got a million dollar loan sitting on their property, they're about to lose a multi generational property.
SHERRI DUGGER: Craig and was just talking on the way over here. There's suicide rates are really high, there's a lot at stake here in this situation and so we're talking now about how to design this program so that we can get those people out of that situation. Not only to help save their farm, to be able to feed their families etc, but also to help them become like Craig, to be spokes persons for these communities so that they understand the other side. We're not against the growers that are stuck in these contracts, we're against the system that doesn't help those contract growers, that doesn't help the communities they're living in etc.
KAYTE YOUNG: So a lot of times when you hear these stories of big business coming in to a small community and starting something up, a lot of times the communities themselves are split, some of them are, while the community's suffering we really need this money. But it doesn't sound like there's much in it for the communities with these particular kinds of operations or is there something that the businesses try to offer as an incentive, like hey this is going to be great, it's going to bring jobs or anything like that?
CRAIG WATTS: Sure they say that, they don't mention the fact that they're revolving door jobs. The turnover rate's tremendous in a poultry production facility. I'll just put it in perspective, before poultry came in we were probably the second or third poorest county in the state. We have two processing facilities, two particular integrators represented in our county just with processing facilities. We have housing for at least three integrators in our county. Well guess where we are, we're still second, third poorest county in state. So it's not just rise and tide that's going to lift all the ship, it's more like the anchor that went through it that keeps you down on the bottom. Silicon Valley's not going to come knocking when you're a chicken county and once you're a chicken county, you're a chicken county. To me there's just nothing positive that comes out of that. I mean what they promise and what they deliver, that image is very far from reality. They extract way more than they ever bring.
SHERRI DUGGER: If I can offer an overview, a 30,000 foot view of what we're talking about here. The Indiana Producer's Council actually just recently put on social media a post. This was like two weeks ago or something, about how sustainable pork production was in Indiana. They are a trade organization supporting the industries side of things and they were promoting how sustainable it was because it doesn't use a lot of land. Craig could with his poultry operation it was what 10 acres?
CRAIG WATTS: Yes.
SHERRI DUGGER: Of a 380 acre property. Ten acres is not a lot of land use for that. Now if Craig was raising hogs in those buildings the amount of corn and soya beans, 80% I think of corn and soya beans in the country is used for feed for these animals that are raised in these operations. So what the pork producers isn't mentioning is the fact that all of our acreage is going to feed the animals in these operations, that all of the chemical inputs that are going onto those fields and farms to grow the commodities that are feeding these animals to all the antibiotics that are used in keeping those animals healthy because they're being raised in situations that make them sick.
SHERRI DUGGER: There's so many problems with that system, so when you think about the supposed economic impacts that the industry might try to sell with something like this coming into a county, nowadays the reason why we have small towns that are basically depleted across America is because we have these 30,000 acre commodity farms and there's like four to a county rather than hundreds of really small farms that are populating and supporting a local community. So I think when you're talking about sustainable agriculture we really advocate for, we want hundreds of family farms in a community. We don't want somebody who's got 10,000 acres or 20,000 acres and they're growing corn and soya beans for some operations that are raising pigs in these confined situations.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes and maybe some of those hundreds of farmers could actually be growing food that people eat in the community.
SHERRI DUGGER: And we're actually involved in organizing a summit in DC that will take place in February called Food not Feed and that's really what that's about is, how do we actually grow food for people because we have a food security issue as well that we haven't talked about, but we need to think about how to actually grow real food for people rather than growing feed for animals.
CRAIG WATTS: Because it really is an inefficient exchange of calories, you know. A hundred calories of corn might get you, 15, 20 calories of pork or whatever. So we could do a lot more with what we have I think. A lot better with what we have.
KAYTE YOUNG: I was wondering if you could tell me about some of the health concerns that people have in the communities where these operations are?
SHERRI DUGGER: Yes, I think Craig mentioned it a little bit, it's actually featured in 'The Smell of Money' that we see some of the health impacts. But I think some of these, not only the neighbors of these operations but also the farm workers themselves are impacted in various ways. They deal with a lot of allergies, they deal with a lot of respiratory problems, they deal with a lot of cancers. One of our staff members has dealt with communities where everyone in the community has cancer of some sort. There were miscarriages at enormous rates.
SHERRI DUGGER: I don't know all of the health impacts, but I know that we see them not only in the communities that we work with, but there's a lot. We work very closely with John Hopkins University, Center for a Livable Future and there's a lot of data that's out there that really speaks to the health impacts of these operations, it's real.
CRAIG WATTS: And I think one thing that probably doesn't get publicized as much is the mental health aspect of it.
SHERRI DUGGER: Absolutely.
CRAIG WATTS: You can't go out in your yard and sit at a picnic table because you're smelling pig manure and you know your property's worthless now and then you try to go to the people who can help you, the legislator or whoever and they just turn a blind eye to you. I mean we work with these communities every day, so I know the frustration and I fought the system myself and it's a juggernaut and it takes it toll certainly.
KAYTE YOUNG: The Oxford Dictionary defines juggernaut as a huge powerful and overwhelming force or institution. That sounds like the correct word choice.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm Kayte Young. This is Earth Eats and we'll be back with Craig Watts and Sherri Dugger with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project after we take a short break. Stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats and we're talking with Sherri Dugger and Craig Watts about the documentary, 'The Smell of Money' and the issues rural communities face when factory farming moves to their area. I asked Craig to tell me the story of the woman in the pink house.
CRAIG WATTS: The main character is Elsie Herring and it kind of took us back in time to 1999 when she started finally standing up for herself and it just kind of follows the path of time and here we are in 2022 and nothing's really changed.
KAYTE YOUNG: So did she live somewhere where a CAFO came in or she was trying to fight it before it got there?
CRAIG WATTS: Elsie had the property then the CAFO came in on top of her. So she was there first. I don't think nobody was prepared for what was going to come. Oh you're raising a few hogs, okay that sounds good. But then you see these massive industrial operations like Sherri said, these football fields. The waste disposal method is this. The hogs are in the barn, they poop through the floor, it goes down a pipe and it goes into this big hole in the ground outside the house, totally uncovered, untreated and then when the fluid builds up so much, they got these huge irrigation guns that they pump out and they spray on hay fields and it's just this mist in the air and that's what is getting sprayed on the neighbors. Untreated cesspool of just sewage.
CRAIG WATTS: So I don't think nobody really was prepared for that but there is a good ending or maybe not an ending to the story, but a good part of this story is, in North Carolina they actually sued Smithfield, the neighbors did and there was at least five jury verdicts and it was hundreds of million of dollars that the juries awarded the neighbors against Smithfield and then actually I think they came in and settled the rest because they would have lost every one of them. So that was kind of a positive feed on that. Whether those neighbors ever seen any of that money or not, your guess is as good as mine, I don't know how the legal systems work, I just know is it's slow.
SHERRI DUGGER: But I think what you asked is important because the industry tries to say, oh these are city folk and they moved to the country and this is our way of life and they just don't like it, and that's actually not the case the majority of the times. They are intentionally siting these operations next to communities they know cannot protect themselves and so they try to position it as, you're just city folk and you don't understand our way of life, this is the smell of money. You know, this is how we make money. The way that the industry tries to position it is that you're attacking our way of life. This is the country and that's just not the case.
CRAIG WATTS: You know most states have right to farm laws. I guess all states probably have some sort of right to farm law which started with good intentions. It was to temper urban sprawl from coming in on top of farms and then dictating to the farmers, we don't like you combining in the middle of the night where as sometimes that's all you can do and so that made sense, but now the industry has totally flipped it and now they use that as a shield where they can come in on top of existing communities. SRAP actually put out a film not that long ago. It took a little spin on that, it was called 'Right to Harm' but that's another story.
SHERRI DUGGER: So for a little background Right to Farm Laws essentially mean that communities can't file nuisance law suits against these operations for the harms that they bring to the communities and what Craig is saying is that it started out with these good intentions to protect farmers from people coming in and complaining about things, but the industry took it and really took advantage of it and said oh okay, we're going to make it stronger and now it's in every state I believe.
CRAIG WATTS: I think so.
SHERRI DUGGER: Which was why the North Carolina verdicts were so important because those were actually nuisance cases that actually made it through.
KAYTE YOUNG: Is that part of what the film is about?
CRAIG WATTS: Yes.
KAYTE YOUNG: Is about the people coming together?
CRAIG WATTS: I think people always call it the classic David versus Goliath and people think that kind of backwards because at the end of the day, David beat Goliath and that's what happened here. The industry probably weren't prepared for a lady like Elsie Herring and she just dug in and rode it out for 20 years. They were hoping she would either just give up and quit or die or whatever. She didn't and so I think that's just the triumph of the human spirit I think is part of the film actually.
KAYTE YOUNG: Was she one of the people who filed the suit?
CRAIG WATTS: Yes.
SHERRI DUGGER: I think in our work we see wins in communities where they can actually stop a CAFO from coming in or they can get, say there's a landowner who's about to rent to somebody who wants to build an operation there and we can change that landowner's mind once we start to talk to him or the community can I should say, not us, but I think communities can organize, they can participate in that permitting process and they do win, but those wins don't come very often. Craig knows this first hand. There's lots of ways to try to fight these things. The water monitoring is another. All of these things are ways that we can try to get the communities organized in moving forward and doing things to safeguard their families and their futures.
SHERRI DUGGER: But I think the wins don't come very often and they look different. So one win can just be a community member realizing that they can use their voice and that they can participate in this process. They can go talk to their legislators. We've seen the communities not very often but communities can get health ordinanceswritten that might never mention the word CAFO but can protect a communities health and wellbeing in ways that would hinder a CAFO from either coming in or polluting or harming them in some way.
KAYTE YOUNG: You know there are some films out there that are really focused on the animal welfare and want to really shock people and horrify them about the way animals are treated because I think a lot of us have a really visceral response to that. It didn't seem to me that that's the focus of this film.
SHERRI DUGGER: Definitely not, and I think in our work at Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, we often times don't talk specifically to the animal welfare issues. I'll tell you a little story. I was at the State House, I was going to testify in front of a committee about actually a Bill that was being voted on by the Agriculture Committee in the State House and I actually wrote a speech, went into a friend who's a legislator in the State House and she read it before I went to go testify and she's like, can you take out this one line about animal welfare because law makers don't care about that, and that was incredibly disheartening but real and so I deleted the line about animal welfare because then they just think you're crazy, radical who is anti animal agriculture which is not the case.
SHERRI DUGGER: But I think the other thing is the industry really likes to paint, you know, we don't talk about it a lot, we are pro rural communities, we are pro people, I'll tell you that. Not just rural communities. We definitely work directly with rural communities on a daily basis, but we are pro people. People knowing their rights, people knowing and understanding what the food system looks like. People understanding what the impact and the harms of the food system is going to be on their lives, on their futures, on their families. I'm not doing this to change the system in my life, I'm doing this to change the system in my great grand nieces lives because their lives are going to be impacted in really ugly ways because of what's happening right now and so the animal welfare aspect is ugly. I know that and I almost didn't come to SRAP to work because I was terrified of thinking about pigs being stuck in cages all day long. But I don't think about pigs being stuck in cages all day long because we're working with communities and showing them the power that they have with their voices and we're working with communities and showing them the power that they have to create change.
SHERRI DUGGER: So animal welfare is one aspect of many harms that occur because of this system. But we don't focus on that necessarily because that's the easy one for the industry to attack.
KAYTE YOUNG: So one question that occurs to me when we're talking about this and when I've heard about these fights before of communities wanting to keep the CAFOs out of their area is they're going to go somewhere. I'm not trying to say that this is nimbyism or anything. I don't think anyone wants this in their backyard. So I guess I'm just trying to think about a larger picture.
SHERRI DUGGER: Absolutely, so you're right. It is going to normally go somewhere. Every contractor that we try to take out of the system, Tyson's going to go find another one to sign on the dotted line. Craig is famous I think at this point for saying if I knew then what I know now I never would have signed that contract. So we're looking at how do we reach those growers before they get the contract put in front of them. We actually see in our work in Nebraska, we just saw an operation where we beat it in one place, they went to another one and they're going to put it in. We actually refer to it as whack a mole. You can beat it down in one place and it's going to pop up somewhere else.
SHERRI DUGGER: So that's why the food and farm network is really important. That's why we have to get these community members engaging beyond what's happening in their backyards and we have to do podcasts like this. We have to actually talk to people and educate them. We have to do the film screening to be able to make sure that people understand, not only does your buying choice matter, what you buy at the grocery store or the farmer's market or wherever you're going to get it. We have to make people understand there is a higher cost here to the food that you're eating even if it's a cheap jug of milk or even if it's a cheap piece of chicken and you think you're getting a really good deal, there's a higher cost and it impacts us all. Regardless of where we live if we're urban or rural it impacts us all through our climate, through our environment, through all the things that we're seeing weather wise through our public health, through the antibiotics that are making their ways into the food.
SHERRI DUGGER: I mean there are impacts in numerous ways which we call cost and these are externalized costs that you might not see on the grocery bill but they're actually there and we're going to pay for it with our insurance later when we get cancer or we get some other health problem that crops up because of the way we've been eating and growing food.
KAYTE YOUNG: And that really leads to one of the other questions that I wanted to ask which is what do you think about the power of an individual response to factory farming and I'm mostly thinking about avoiding the products, not eating meat or not eating meat that's produced in this manner.
SHERRI DUGGER: I think there's a lot of things that can happen. Certainly if you don't want to eat meat or eat less meat or at least do one thing which is buy your meat or your eggs from a farmer that you know, you know, that you know how those products are raised. I would say if you can do that that's wonderful, please do it.There are other ways too, like using your voice, sending comments when there's opportunities. We're trying to enlist action alerts for communities who sign up on our website to be able to know when something's happening at the State House, to at least just write a comment about what you think, participate in the process in some way. Policy is huge. We have to be able to get these farmers out of these situations and we have to be able to build the infrastructure so that farmers can actually have a market and access to a market to sell their products that are sustainably raised and then we need consumers on the buying side to be able to support that market and advocate for more. So there's you know, voting and making sure what you're voting for and the people that you're voting for and what they support is really important.
CRAIG WATTS: I certainly think that an individual should support a system they believe in, but we didn't get to this overnight. The consumers will certainly play a point in it but Sherri's right, the policy that we have now is totally geared up for this industrial operation to soy the corn, to subsidize insurance and I always just said it's like we're trying to fill a pail with a hole in the bottom of it. It's just never going to happen, it's time for a reboot and I compare it to the frog and the kettle and the water's warming up, so I think we need to certainly change the way our food system is before the water starts to boil actually, and I'm not promoting vegan or vegetarian because I'm neither, but I think at the end of the day we're going to have to look at consuming less meat. Who needs to eat chicken three times a day, really? It's just those small things but I just think the policy is such a issue, so we need to let people think in the manner that we think.
KAYTE YOUNG: Do you do any work around the Farm Bill?
SHERRI DUGGER: So certainly the Farm Bill which comes in 2023 again I think that is certainly an opportunity to be able to look at what we're subsidizing. So essentially what's happening is we're subsidizing the wrong types of agriculture on the front end. We eat this food that's heavily processed, that's raised in these conditions and it's bad for the environment and not good f
backend of our lives because of all the problems that crop up in our own health individually and so I think it's important to understand that as I said, there's all these externalized costs and it all starts with that Farm Bill. It all starts with this policy on a federal level and at a state and local level on what we're setting forth as priority. What we think is important about what we're raising and what we're producing in this country and then how we're regulating the operations that are doing it.
KAYTE YOUNG: I just want to give you an opportunity to talk about, it might seem obvious to you, but what are some of the larger environmental costs of this kind of farming?
CRAIG WATTS: If you're going to build a poultry processing plant, you're going to have those houses to supply that plant or they're not going to want to drive those trucks all over the United States of America. So they're going to put that within that 60 mile range, so you have this highly concentrated amounts of waste in this little confined area because it's not really economical to truck it here and there and if you want to look at any perfect example of what can happen, research the Chesapeake Bay, up on the Delmarva, that's basically where the industry started and it's not all 100% agricultural run off but a lot of it is and a lot of that is what you wind up doing is, you wind up over applying nutrients. The crops can't take it, it rains, it's going somewhere. Surface water and then eventually ground water and so they're seeing issues in the bay. I mean you see a lot of issues even in the Gulf of Mexico where you have this huge dead spot. So certainly water, air, soil, I mean there's heavy metals in that poultry manure and we had to monitor that because if you get metal toxicity in your farm it's game over and so sooner or later there's got to be some alternative use.
KAYTE YOUNG: What do you mean if you get metal toxicity, it's game over?
CRAIG WATTS: If your metal levels get so high, crops will not grow, so your farm is absolutely useless.
SHERRI DUGGER: I think in Indiana and don't quote me on this but you can look it up pretty easily. Indiana is around 60% of our water is unfit for recreation due to pollution and I think also we were like number two in the country for polluted water from agriculture I believe. So you know, right there, I don't know if you have to say anything more than that. We used to probably all of us grew up playing in creeks and rivers and ditches and being able to kick our bare feet in water and the fact that throughout our state now we can't even put our toe in the water, it's not safe. It says a lot about what we've done, the damage that we've done from the system that's supposedly is so great.
KAYTE YOUNG: I imagine that when people see this film they're appalled and they want to take action. What kind of message do you try to leave folks with when they come to a screening like this?
SHERRI DUGGER: For me personally, I'm the Executive Director of an organization. I want them to engage with us. I want them to care and I think that's what it is. It's like, you know, how do we show up and whatever way that makes sense. Whatever way that's possible, whether that's calling a legislator, whether that's voting differently, whether that's purchasing something differently, whether that's just signing up for our newsletter so they can engage when it makes sense for them or just continuing to go to documentaries when they pop up. There's all kinds of different ways that we can show up to this issue and make sure that we're speaking up on the issues and really trying to support a better future for ourselves.
CRAIG WATTS: I think when people see something like this, anybody that you educate for five minutes on how this industrial system actually works. The industry has their narrative, they have their playbook, we're feeding the world, this is a farmer's way of life, I think there's two or three more. But that narrative doesn't hold up anymore. They automatically lose so public opinion we can swing, but people have to take it one step further and do things like call legislators or we'll take volunteers with SRAP I'm sure if people want to join some fight in the communities. One of the first gentleman I talked to and it was a committee member that we got a win and I actually wasn't involved with it but I was talking to him and I said well what did you all do? He said everything. So that's the approach. You flip every rock you can.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well thank you so much for doing this work.
SHERRI DUGGER: Thank you for having us on and talking about the issue. I really appreciate it.
KAYTE YOUNG: Thank you so much for coming. I have been speaking with Craig Watts and Sherri Dugger with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
SHERRI DUGGER: Anybody who wants to stay in contact with Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, please visit sraproject.org for more information.
KAYTE YOUNG: We'll have links to their work on our website, eartheats.org.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.
DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young with help from Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Payton Whaley, reporters at Harvest Public Media and me, Daniella Richardson.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Sherri Dugger, Craig Watts, everyone at Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.
DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Additional music on the show comes to us from artists at Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is John Bailey.