My Crash Course in Modern Meat
A New Assignment
There I was, driving through sheets of relentless rain, straining to get a good view of the road in front of me. The year was 2000 and I was heading east on I-80 toward my new job in New York City, anxiously anticipating what lay ahead. As I made the trip from Michigan, I thought about all I'd given up. I'd just quit my job, sold my house, given away most of my possessions, and crammed the rest—my least expendable belongings—into my aging Volkswagen Golf. I had the overwhelming sense that this new beginning would be a turning point in my life. A few days later I would start as the senior attorney for the environmental group, Waterkeeper, headed by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
After some long hours on the road, I finally reached New York and collapsed on a friend's sofa. Two days later, my first day on the new job, I settled into a small, austere office at the Pace University Law School, where Waterkeeper was housed, and awaited direction. These initial weeks on the job turned out to be atypical in both the tasks I was given and the hours I worked. Bobby (as everyone calls him) threw a hodgepodge of requests at me, relating to everything from employment issues, to air pollution, to the organization's tax status. These were tests, I suspected, yet none of the work seemed particularly pressing. Diligently but dispassionately, I plodded along as a legal factotum in a regular rhythm of nine to five.
That all changed one Saturday afternoon when I got a call from Bobby (for whom a mere wisp of a line separates on- and off-duty). "Nicolette, I want you to take charge of our hog campaign," he barked in a way that sounded half command, half request. "You'll have a lot of autonomy and responsibility," he continued, "but it's also going to be a lot of hard work." At that moment, there was really no "hog campaign" to speak of. It was little more than Bobby's notion that he wanted to sue hog farming operations for contaminating rivers with their manure and that he wanted it to be part of a larger national crusade against industrialized animal operations that caused pollution.
The responsibility and autonomy were certainly appealing, but I knew almost nothing about hog farming and it struck me as, well, an immersion in poop. It was not exactly the glamorous job I'd envisioned when abandoning everything for New York. "Uh—I'm not sure I want to work full-time on manure," I ventured.
There was another reason for my reticence. I'd sought this job with the idea of dedicating myself to environmental causes dear to my heart, yet livestock farming didn't hold much interest for me. Just after my freshman year of college, a tangle of vaguely informed concerns about the environment, health, and animals had inspired me to quit meat. However, since I wasn't much of a proselytizing vegetarian, I'd largely ignored the dark details lately emerging about the meat industry. Frankly, I found those stories so depressing I intentionally avoided them. (Anyway, why did I need to read that stuff—wasn't I doing my part by abstaining from meat?)
Hearing my hesitation, Bobby responded that before giving my answer, I should see for myself what this was really about. "Just go to Missouri and meet the people who've been asking for our help. Then you can decide."
A steamrolled community
As Bobby is not a person easily gainsaid, a few days later I found myself stepping off a plane in Kansas City. My ultimate destination was a Missouri town three hours to the northeast that had become densely populated by the hog operations of the large agribusiness corporation, Premium Standard Farms (PSF). Two farmers, a lawyer, and an environmental advocate would be my guides. They met me at the airport terminal exit in a white rental van.
From our phone conversations, I already knew that Scott Dye, a Sierra Club employee in the group, was a straight-talking, salty-tongued fountain of knowledge. With his grizzled beard, booming voice, red plaid shirt, and baseball cap, he struck me as more lumberjack than tree hugger. Scott gave my hand a firm shake then introduced me to the others.
From the introductions I learned that all but one in the group came from farming families. That fact stood out to me because I had already encountered claims from agribusiness that complaints about industrial animal operations are made only by misguided "displaced city-dwellers" who simply don't understand agriculture. It seemed to be a classic agribusiness response to any criticism. As we drove north, I heard facts and stories about the people who'd been raising crops and animals in the area for generations, long before big agribusiness moved in. Seated next to me was one of them: Terry Spence, a second-generation farmer with a Red Angus cattle herd. He seemed a modest, soft spoken man. But I soon detected a will of iron underneath as he described the company's inauspicious arrival in their town a decade earlier.
At the time, Terry was serving on the local township board. When he and his fellow board members heard that PSF planned to move to their community after being blacklisted in neighboring Iowa, they leapt into action. The board drafted land use ordinances that would prohibit animal operations from causing pollution and odor, laws by which traditional farmers could easily abide.
The company responded by making a beeline to the state capitol to flex its political muscle. The day after the township adopted its anti-pollution ordinance, the state approved PSF's permits, effectively overriding the local laws. The legislature even passed a law that explicitly exempted Terry's county from the protection of a decades-old state statute that makes farming by out-of-state corporations illegal. Everything coming out of the capitol appeared hand-tailored for the company to seamlessly set up its facilities in Terry's township.
Excerpted from Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Niman Copyright © 2009 by Nicolette Niman. Excerpted by permission.
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