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Paradise Lost

Nineteen years ago, I decided to fight for clean air, clean water and healthy food.

By Terry Spence

I farm 400 acres in Putnam County, Missouri. After 64 years of mostly working and tending the land, and a little fishing and hunting, I have a personal relationship with every acre of its beautiful rolling hills. I raise beef cattle and harvest hay for winter forage. My wife Linda tends her flower gardens of roses, hydrangeas, mums, asters and 62 different kinds of day lilies. We raised our two children here and hope to turn the land over to them one day.

Our farm was a paradise until our new neighbors moved in-80,000 hogs.

Everything changed in 1995 when Premium Standard Farms arrived and started putting up 72 buildings that would house the swine. Back then, we had no idea what concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) would mean to a rural community. We soon learned. It displaced area farmers with a corporation that controls every aspect of animal production. It divided our community between those who saw economic benefit and those concerned about public health and environmental degradation.

Feces and urine from so many animals confined to such a small space inevitably pollutes streambeds and kills fish, but in many ways, the odor is the worst insult.

The odor comes and goes according to the weather and time

of day. As the sun comes up, the smell rises up out of the valleys. Linda says it's like the Angel of Death moving through Egypt in the movie The Ten Commandments. It snakes along like that. At its worst, it's unbearable to be outside. The stench causes heaviness in my chest, headaches and foul sinus drainage that can linger for days. There are over 160 compounds in the particulate matter that enters our lungs with every breath. Sooner or later, it's going to have an effect on our health.

People have asked me, why don't you just move? Only other farmers would understand. A farm becomes a part of your life,

a heritage of the past and the present, something you dedicate your life to and steward for the future. My roots are embedded on this farm, just like the plants.

Nineteen years ago, I chose to fight. After hearing about the corporation's plans in 1994, I traveled to North Carolina, which pioneered CAFOs. I saw what they did to rural communities and became determined to hold the corporation accountable for its actions. That summer, our township adopted a zoning ordinance requiring the CAFO to have setbacks from residences and post a security bond to ensure the township wouldn't be stuck with cleanup costs should the operation cease. Shortly after, the corporation filed a $7.9 million lawsuit against the 256 residents of Lincoln Township. On April 1, 1995, Willie Nelson traveled to Lincoln Township for a Farm Aid rally to defy the company's injustice to our community. After the negative press, Premium Standard Farms dropped the lawsuit. Despite endless legal battles, consent decrees and environmental fines, the CAFO is still just over the ridge from my property.

The only good thing from this experience is the work I've done helping others. Before, I didn't have a fax or a computer or even talk on the phone much. I just tended my farm. Now I work with community groups, speak before government committees and give talks on college campuses. Since 1999, I've worked with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project assisting people throughout the U.S. in organizing and defending their communities against CAFOs. We've had many victories over the years because people have become educated and fought for their communities.

Consumers have the misconception that factory-farmed products are cheaper than those that are sustainably raised, but they're not considering the true costs in terms of water and air pollution, human health, transportation, infrastructure and taxpayers subsidies. If all costs were calculated, sustainable production would be just as affordable as factory farmed.

The bottom line is that there are three elements of all life: clean air, clean water and healthy food. Everyone should understand that the CAFO model destroys all of these.

Here's what I advise: Find a farmer and buy locally.