Privacy. Clean air. Pristine views. Good neighbors.
These are just a few of the things that continue to draw people to rural areas across America, including rural Indiana. As more populated areas grapple with overcrowding, noise and air pollution, the idyll of rural life has become more and more attractive for many people. For others, their deep family roots in these parts of the country keep them tied to the land, the people and the neighbors they feel a kinship with.
But if the Indiana Court of Appeals gets its way, protecting those values, and the natural peace and beauty that comes with them, may soon be much more difficult. That’s because, in a recent decision, the Court prioritized corporate profits, unchecked pollution and industrial agriculture facilities ahead of the interests of Indiana families. And it’s all because the Court is relying on a law never meant to address the problems at hand in order to protect 21st century corporate misconduct.
That’s not only wrong; it’s also downright dangerous.
It all began when two families in Hendricks County tried to curb the noxious odors and emissions wafting out of their "neighbor’s" property. That neighbor happens to be an industrial agriculture facility containing 8,000 hogs. These huge, profit-driven enterprises are known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. And whenever they pop up, trouble is never far behind.
My organization, Public Justice, has helped communities fight these monstrous operations everywhere from Washington State (where dairy farms were making a rural community’s well water toxic to drink, or even wash dishes with) to North Carolina (where Smithfield hog farms have ruined the quality of life in every community they’ve built in) and Delaware (where a huge chicken processing plant was sending unbearable fumes into neighbors’ homes in the middle of the night). And anyone who lives next door to one can tell you: They’re not farms in the way you, or I, or most Indianans define that term. They are factories, and they produce so much waste, pollution and runoff that the local air and water isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be deadly.
That’s why we joined the Indiana Farmers Union, Family Farm Action and Food & Water Watch in asking the Indiana court not to give the hog facility in Hendricks County a pass under the state’s “Right to Farm” statute. Laws passed decades ago — like the one in Indiana — never envisioned the corporate takeover of agriculture that has resulted in operations like the ones in Hendricks County. In short, the law hasn’t kept up with the rapid corporate takeover of the food system, and the corresponding destruction of rural Americans' way of life.
But the Appeals Court nonetheless applied an outdated law that’s not up to the task to a very modern problem — and, in the course of doing so, handed down a mighty punishment for rural Indiana communities. As Richard Himsel, one of the neighbors fighting the hog factory next door, told the Star-Tribune, the smell "has been so severe that staying in the house is at times unbearable." His grandchildren don’t want to visit and, like many people who suddenly find themselves living next door to a CAFO, his property value is depreciating, too. And like most people engaged in these battles, Himsel was there, nurturing and responsibly farming the land, long before the CAFO ever showed up.
No one, understandably, wants to be neighbors with 8,000 pigs and the corporate executives who refuse to take proper care of them.
It is urgent, then, that the Indiana Supreme Court intervene and reverse the wrong-headed decision of the Court of Appeals.
True farmers — the independent family growers who are stewards of the land and responsible friends to their neighbors — would never act in the way that 4/9 Livestock and Co-Alliance, the corporations behind the operation in Hendricks County, have. Those farmers — the ones you want to have as neighbors if you’re lucky enough to live in a place like rural Indiana — are the ones the “Right to Farm” statute was meant to protect. But, ironically, they are hardly ever the ones who need protection because they farm and live in the same way their neighbors — whether new transplants from the city or families who have spent generations on the land — appreciate and support. These are the farmers the Public Justice Food Project has been proud to stand with for years and to partner with in an effort to keep the character, values and livable farms of rural America intact.
In stark contrast, it is the Co-Alliances and the 4/9 Livestocks of the world that are endangering the rural way of life that residents treasure. What they do is not farming; it’s profiteering. And courts should not invent a “right” for them to make their neighbors’ air unbreathable and water undrinkable by buying into their distorted definition of “farming” and using laws meant to protect the rural way of life as a means to destroy it instead.
Hendricks County — and all of rural Indiana — deserves better.
Jessica Culpepper is director of the Public Justice Food Project, which supports rural communities, farmers, workers and allies to achieve a just, humane and sustainable animal agriculture system. For more information, visit food.publicjustice.net. The opinions are the writer's.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!