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A Conversation with Lynn Henning on Water Pollution, Health Risks, and Economic Fallout Caused by Factory Farms

January 9, 2024

Explore the profound impact of factory farm pollution on rural communities with activist Lynn Henning and Brece Clark, Lead Educator at New Roots Institute.

Can you tell us about your background, and your current role at Socially Responsible Agriculture Project?

My husband and I farm 300 acres of corn and soybeans in Lenawee County, Michigan. Our farm is located within 10 miles of 12 industrial livestock operations, also known as factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

Industrial livestock facilities, which resemble more of a factory than a farm, confine thousands—and sometimes millions—of animals without adequate space or access to open air or posture. 

In 2000, as these operations began to dot my small rural community, a nearby CAFO operator falsely accused us of reporting the facility’s waste discharges to state officials. 

This prompted me to start researching water pollution caused by factory farms. Today, I serve as a director of Socially Responsible Agriculture Project’s Water Rangers program. 

What made you decide to focus your research on water pollution from Michigan factory farms? 

When my husband and I were accused of reporting a nearby factory farm for discharging waste, it got us thinking about the irresponsible way these facilities handle animal waste.

Factory farms produce nearly 13 times more waste than the entire U.S. population. But unlike municipalities, they aren’t required to build sewage treatment facilities to safely process all that waste. Instead, it’s stored in open pits called “manure lagoons” and applied untreated to surrounding land. 

I soon began testing my local waterways for pollution.

What is your personal connection to factory farm pollution? 

Rural Michigan is our home. And, unfortunately, our home is surrounded by industrial livestock operations. Pollution from these facilities threatens our drinking water,  our health, and our overall quality of life. The smell is unlike anything you can imagine. And it’s certainly not desirable for potential buyers, which means our property value has plummeted. 

Living next door to these operations also places us in a contentious situation with our neighbors, the facility owners. Standing up for ourselves and our rights has resulted in bullying and harassment. 

How does factory farming affect your work as a farmer?

There are days the stench is so bad that we can’t even work on our farm. The air pollution caused by these operations affects our health, causing sore throats, dizziness, and headaches. 

Can you share your perspective on factory farming as a person living in a rural area? Is factory farming an issue that is discussed frequently in your community?

Factory farms have devastating impacts on the economic and social fabric of rural communities. These facilities bring pollution and health threats, decimating local property values, eliminating tourism, compelling existing residents to leave, and discouraging others from moving in. 

Because they import feed and supplies from outside the community and create only a few dangerous, low-paying jobs, factory farms provide little economic benefit to offset the damage they cause. In fact, they often force communities to bear new costs, like increased road repair expenses due to heavy truck traffic.

My community is no exception. It causes great tension, as many landowners are renting their land to CAFO operators. Surrounding neighbors feel CAFO operators have broken the rural code of “do no harm to your neighbor.”