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July 21, 2009

Loathe Thy Neighbor

It was a story that should have garnered more headlines. Over the weekend, the Kansas City Star reported that a Missouri couple’s lawsuit against a nearby factory farm had been settled for $1.1 million. Ed and Ruth McEowen filed a nuisance suit against the hog farm’s operators after barns were erected closer than 1,000 feet to their home, a clear violation of Missouri zoning regulations. Among other impacts, hog manure polluted a creek running through the McEowen’s property.

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© USDA

Strikingly, this is one of some 350 cases involving factory farms and odors in Missouri, according to the McEowens’ attorney, Charlie Speer, who told the Associated Press that the award, agreed upon in a Cedar County Circuit Court, “sets the bar for future settlements.” The agreement prevents the hog farm from taking any further actions to release odors that might adversely affect the McEowens and their property. Other defendants included the Missouri Farmers Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Similarly, last fall, in California’s Central Valley, local residents and The HSUS joined together to file a federal lawsuit against Olivera Egg Ranch, based on the factory farm’s intolerable air pollution. This giant factory farm confines more than 700,000 hens in cramped, barren, wire cages and every day it dumps thousands of pounds of manure into massive cesspools which are just a stone’s throw from residential neighbors—many of whom predate Olivera in the neighborhood by generations.

To me, both cases highlight the threat that factory farms pose to the lives of those who cherish living in our nation’s rural communities. The McEowens have lived on their 40-acre farm for 30 years, and built their home and workshop by hand. The owner of the hog factories does not live at the site, and, as the case record reveals, paid no apparent mind to the interests of his neighbors while expanding his factory farm.

The environmental community is increasingly paying attention to the havoc wreaked by huge concentrations of farm animals in small areas. I was heartened that our campaign to pass Proposition 2 (the California initiative to halt confinement of certain animals on factory farms) attracted the support of so many environmental organizations.

But here’s the bottom line: Factory farming interests attempt to argue that they represent rural people and rural values and that animal protection advocates, environmentalists, and others do not understand their way of life. They could not be more wrong. It is the factory farming industry that is actually a threat to rural communities—swallowing up small farms, polluting the water and air, and driving down property values. Rural people should be in the forefront of the movement against factory farms, and the Missouri case shows us that, increasingly, they are.

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