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Difference Maker

One farmer acts to save environment from factory farms

When farmer and environmentalist Lynn Henning saw what factory farms were doing to the land and water, she decided to act.

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent / April 26, 2010

Lynn Henning of rural Michigan won a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize this year for her work monitoring concentrated animal-feeding operations. It's part of her effort to protect the environment from the effects of factory farms.

Courtesy of Tom Dusenbery/Goldman Environmental Prize


Clayton, Mich.

Lynn Henning doesn't look much like the stereotypical environmental activist. She has no visible piercings, and neither hemp nor Birkenstocks feature heavily in her wardrobe.

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In fact, the white-haired Michigan woman looks very much what she is: a grandmother and farmer's wife.

But on April 19, Henning became one of the 2010 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, sometimes called the Green Nobel, the largest prize in the world given to grass-roots environmentalists.

How she became a self-taught bane to local CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations) is a story 10 years in the making.

"What struck the jury was that her leadership addressed one of the most serious and least-talked-about issues in our country today," says Lorrae Rominger, deputy director of the Goldman Prize in San Francisco.

This is the first time the $150,000 prize has been awarded to someone battling CAFOs, Ms. Rominger says. The jury was very concerned about "the water and air pollution that comes from these factory farms and how they are making people sick," she says.

Many Americans are unaware of the environmental costs of industrial-style farming, Rominger says. "I just don't think that many people understand there are factory farms in this country where they keep thousands of animals in a barn with no windows."

Henning says she once had been content just farming.

"I stayed home with my kids. I raised all my own food in my own garden," she recalls while taking a reporter on a tour of local CAFOs, casually pointing out where a creek runs red with bloodworms.

A former sign painter, she has spent much of her life helping her husband on their 80-acre farm in Clayton, a small town in south-central Michigan. "We lived the American dream until the CAFOs came to town," Henning says.

Today, 20,000 cows are within a 10-mile radius of her home, she says, and another 20,000 hogs cycle through on an annual basis. (Before the CAFOs, there were about 500 animals in the same area, she says.)

Waste from one cow equals that produced by 23 humans. That waste (along with whatever else is on the barn floor) is washed into lagoons that hold millions of gallons, where it is stored for months before being spread on fields.

The smell, even in early March, is nearly overpowering. "It's industrial agriculture using family farms as a disguise," Henning says. "Manure is no longer manure – it's toxic waste." And it needs to be treated as such, she says, not spread untreated on fields or allowed to wash into local water sources.

This is not what most Americans think of as farming. "They think of a little red barn. They don't think of 5 million gallons of manure – not the 6,000 pigs that never see the light of day," says Dave Maturin, a county commissioner and real estate appraiser. He cites instances of Michigan homes losing 30 to 60 percent of their value after a CAFO moved in. In some cases, he says, homeowners can't sell at any price.