Opinion | We’re changing the rules for factory farms in Michigan

Gail Philbin (left) is the director of the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club. Rebecca Wolf is a senior organizer at Food & Water Action.

We’re changing the rules for factory farms in Michigan. But the common sense gains we’ve made are under attack by Big Ag. Even so, we know it’s not inevitable that factory farms continue to dominate our food supply at the expense of healthy and sustainable family farms. 

Michigan alone contains 272 factory farms, or “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), as they are known in regulatory parlance. These operations are anything but small businesses with a few dozen cows or hogs. They’re industrial-scale operations with thousands of animals that produce enormous amounts of waste -- waste that contains a toxic slurry of manure, chemicals, pathogens, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. This waste runs off frozen and snow-covered fields, into our lakes and streams, and is a major contributor to the toxic algae blooms that shut down Toledo’s drinking water and make swimming and fishing in Lake Erie a potentially deadly experience. 

Every five years, the state is required to revisit the permitting process for factory farms and the public is invited to comment on the new permit. The next five-year permit will take effect in April 2020, which gives us an important opportunity to fight for better protections for Michigan communities, drinking water and our Great Lakes. 

The Great Farms Great Lakes coalition has been leading a movement to improve this permit and our efforts have resulted in some meaningful improvements in the draft permit. The most significant of these is banning the application of manure on snow-covered or frozen ground from January through the third week in March. Even so, the industry is pushing back against even this necessary, common sense revision, and now we have to go toe-to-toe with the Big Ag to defend it.

Ultimately, we need a full ban on this kind of manure spreading rather than an arbitrary window.  Manure can run off frozen and snow-covered land or make its way through underground drainage tiles toward the Great Lakes at many times of the year. The draft permit contains a partial ban and while it’s an important step in the right direction, we need the CAFO 2020 Permit to do more-- we need a full ban on manure spreading on frozen and snow-covered ground. 

Across the state, our coalition has held numerous community meetings where we’ve heard from hundreds of people about their concerns and about the threat factory farms pose for their water, communities, and special places. Hundreds more concerned residents have called into Governor Whitmer’s office to demand that she support a ban on manure spreading on frozen and snow-covered ground, completely. 

But, there is still more work to be done. The Montague community is battling a permit for a 4,000 head hog facility. In Mount Pleasant, community members are fighting a 4,800 head hog facility. Both of these proposed factory farms threaten local waterways, but also contribute to the contamination of Lakes Michigan and Huron, endangering our most important water resources. Hundreds of Michiganders are showing up and taking action to protect their communities from this factory farm onslaught. 

The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has moved the needle on water protections under the leadership of Governor Whitmer, but we still need to fight to make this new general permit as strong as possible-- and in the face of strong industry opposition.

We cannot sacrifice our fundamental rights to clean water, to a healthy climate, and to peoples’ health in the name of corporate gain. As the largest freshwater system in the world, Michigan’s Great Lakes are essential to the health and wellbeing of all who depend upon it. To protect it, it is critical that the CAFO 2020 Permit includes a complete ban on spreading manure on frozen or snow-covered ground.

Now, the CAFO 2020 Permit is open for public comment. We’ll have to live with this new general permit for the next five years, and we cannot afford another five years of algal blooms, contaminated water, and pollution from factory farms. This is a critical opportunity to demand better protections from factory farms. Stand up for clean water, healthy communities, and a better future by submitting comments on the CAFO 2020 Permit today. You can submit a comment here: https://fwwat.ch/CAFO2020

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Carmen Svalstad
Fri, 12/06/2019 - 9:16am

These farms can install a process to burn the manure in a boiler which produces steam to generate electricity for their operation. I may have made it sound simple, however, there are several steps in the process. They then have only the ash to dispose of in a landfill. I know it can be done as there is a large dairy farm in Wisconsin that is doing it.

Jean Morehouse
Fri, 12/06/2019 - 3:40pm

Carmen, I, too, have read about the farm in Wisconsin. Why not make it mandatory to use this burn system if a corporation wants a new permit and give existing mega farms a 3 year window to install the system if they want to continue to operate in Michigan. A common sense approach which I’m sure they would fight but it’s best for our state and waterways. They can always take their business to another state if they don’t like the regulations!

Fri, 12/06/2019 - 9:56am

Thank you so much, Ms. Philbin and Ms. Wolf, for what you are doing. I hope everyone who is concerned about this issue will commit to cutting down on meat consumption and avoiding factory farm meat whenever possible. Real change will only happen when demand for meat decreases and consumers begin demanding sustainable livestock farming practices, and education and outreach by organizations like yours is an important part of that.

Fri, 12/20/2019 - 11:55am

As a small family beef farmer, please don't think that not eating meat is the answer. I love my beef and my small family farm. Try to be realistic in your solutions.

Rodger Meschke
Fri, 12/06/2019 - 11:09am

Show me the science. Please quote studies that back up your comments on the impact of the
CAFOs. What is the impact on food pricing and availability to the median household? Are the algae blooms as much a result of mismanaged human waste as farm runoff? Is this as much an
animal rights issue as an environmental issue?

Charlie Blue
Fri, 12/06/2019 - 3:49pm

Excellent review of why regulatory reform is needed now! CAFOs are inhumane and damage land, air and water along with human health -- and we pay the costs.

Sat, 12/07/2019 - 1:25pm

Meat production is not only inhumane, it's a nasty product to eat, gave that up not too long ago with no regrets. So much filth, steroids, antibiotics, etc. It won't be long before most people realize it and adopt a plant-based diet. Unfortunately Big Ag is destroying the environment and making it difficult to eat wholesome real food in any form, not to mention contaminating our drinking and irrigation water sources.

Kung Fu
Sat, 12/07/2019 - 1:28pm

Grasshopper, you have questions, but no solutions. You protect the inexcusable and must have a financial interest. Choose enlightenment!

Laura Aaron
Sat, 12/07/2019 - 4:51am

If it is unacceptable to torture and eat puppies or children , why is doing the same to highly sentient, cognitive, social mammals considered normal? If the human/animal science thread is universally accepted, why is abhorrent violence to so called farmed animals made exception for in cruelty statutes. If I can't poison or pollute my neighborhood, why can animal abusers called farmers do it with legal and moral impunity?
If I fed my spouse something to induce a heart attack, why could I go to prison for homicide or manslaughter while millions die yearly from heart attacks due to atherosclerosis build up in the arteries to the heart? What insanity to have such legal imperfections and ethical double standards . Plant powered nutrition has always been the cure for all that ails the speciesist carnage of man.

Tue, 12/10/2019 - 10:08pm

Why ban just manure? Why not ban all fertilizer applications during the time period you are discussing?

Tue, 12/17/2019 - 10:40am

Anaerobic digesters are common in Europe with over 40,000 of them. We only have a few hundred of them in this country. The water quality in rural areas of Europe is generally superior to ours. Digesters do not necessarily burn manure. They either convert it to heat and electricity or produce renewable natural gas. The leftover output of these devices is a solid material that is the fertilizer equivalent of manure which can be stored in silos for application during the correct time. According to a Purdue study any facility with more than 60 animals is appropriate for this technology. Installing 70,000 anaerobic digesters would not only clean up our waterways, which it has in Wisconsin, but would also heat barns for free and make enough electricity to supply perhaps 8% of our country similar to Germany. It is basically sewage treatment for farm animals.

Doctorslime Mic...
Wed, 12/18/2019 - 2:38pm

Why should the rules be any different, if we make Dow, GM, and all industry, Play nicely with our rivers shouldn't big AG do the same, the great lakes are a treasure not to be spoiled by anyone.