GREEN BAY, Wis. — A recent event meant to rally anti-CAFO forces may not have had the impact it sought.
The Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP) hosted the two-day gathering, which was to focus on “fighting back against the placement and expansion of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).”The gathering in Green Bay drew just 175 participants to the Saturday night keynote meal, many who were scheduled speakers or SRAP operatives. The reason for the measly turnout — the conference had anticipated three times as many participants — is unclear. The start of the NFL season may have been a factor. It’s possible, too, that the low attendance was a sign that the group’s increasingly extreme tactics are turning off activists who would rather find common ground with farmers.
What was intended as a way to draw publicity to the SRAP cause backfired in the media: A bus tour of northeast Wisconsin CAFOs, for instance, proved fruitless when even the organizers acknowledged on Twitter that one of their targeted farms was “clean in the front.” And SRAP social media credibility took a bruising when it chose to spotlight a man in a chicken mask and “feather shirt” rather than use the forum to highlight discussions about natural resource management.
Despite the media black eyes, SRAP organizers persevered.
Keynote speaker Lynn Henning, a regional SRAP representative from Michigan, shared how she monitors the water near the CAFOs by her home and how she believed their runoff contributed to the growth of blue-green algae in Lake Erie.
Henning, who received the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize for North America in for her activities, said local pilots refused to take her up in their planes so she could shoot aerial photos of farms in the 2000s.
“They were worried they would be shot down,” Henning said.
A verification check with south central Michigan law enforcement agencies, however, shows no complaints or reported incidents of anti-aircraft fire directed at any planes over their airspace since 2000.
On Sunday afternoon, multiple workshops focused on a variety of topics, including organizing interest groups, manipulating the media to work for your organization, testing water and understanding nutrient management plans.
At a breakout session focused on creating an organization to fight back against CAFOs, about 10 people listened to Barbara Sha Cox, the founder of Indiana CAFOs Watch, discuss how her group operates.
“You need to have meetings with only people who are on your side. We don’t have quote – ‘public meetings’– unquote. We’ve had meetings where the CAFO reps are banging on the door to come in, but we tell them our group is having a private meeting,” she said.
Cox makes it clear to members and those interested in joining their cause they have to stick to the script — spelling out specifically what to say in letters to government officials and what not to say. For example, she said, a homeowner’s real concern may be property values, but all communications should hammer on “water quality.”
“We work with SRAP on a lot and they have some different ways to help stall the approval process so everything takes longer to get done,” Cox said. “SRAP is a great resource.”
Noting that some media organizations are less focused on journalism and more concerned about getting spoon-fed camera-ready messages, Maria Payan, executive director of Peach Bottom Concerned Citizens and a SRAP consultant, said citizens’ groups should come up with a catchy name, set up a Facebook page and develop colorful yard signs.
“If you have good signs, we’ve seen the media come to our events to just take film of our signs,” she said of her organization’s fight against CAFOs around the Chesapeake Bay.