Conrad and Joan Cline
Joan Cline stepped out onto her back porch and into the morning breeze. Noting that the air was fresh and clean, she decided to hang her newly washed rugs out to dry before moving on to other chores inside the house. When she came out again a short while later, her breath caught in her throat. The winds had shifted, and the sweet country air had been replaced by a sickening stench from her next-door neighbors: millions of turkeys and chickens grown in enormous confinement houses for large corporations.
When Joan first moved to this family farm in Everton, Missouri in 1966, the land was serene. Her husband, Conrad, had been raised on the original 90-acre property, and the newly married couple had just inherited a smaller acreage on which to build their home and their future. For many years they enjoyed the rural lifestyle, raising children, gardening, and savoring the beauty and tranquility of the sprawling landscape.
That was before March 2007 when a neighbor started constructing huge metal buildings for a giant poultry concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) just a little over a mile from the Clines’ home.
The planned CAFO, also known as a “factory farm,” would consist of three massive barns stuffed with thousands of turkeys, raised for market, that would never see the light of day or walk on the grass outside the facility. Semi trucks would frequently haul feed back and forth on the county roads, and new turkey flocks would be trucked in every few months when the old flocks were shipped out. The tons of untreated bird waste generated would be spread on neighboring cropland as fertilizer, releasing ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, and pathogens into the air. But it wouldn’t stop with contaminating the air. The vast amount of turkey waste spread on open fields had the potential to runoff or leach into the soil, threatening local waterways and endangering the well-water upon which so many in the area relied.
“We received no notice. We just saw the construction happening… and we were broken-hearted because we knew what was coming.”
The Clines and their neighbors took their concerns to the Dade County commissioners. The county had established a health ordinance several years prior that was supposed to regulate new CAFOs, requiring them to be permitted according to their size, imposing certain distances from neighboring homes, and setting guidelines for other practices like the spreading of manure.
Much to their dismay, the group learned that because of the slightest difference in the language of the ordinance — because “and” does not mean the same thing as “or” — poultry operations did not fall under the regulation. A loophole had been found, and no protections were going to be provided by the county.
The locals didn’t give up. The risks were far too great — for their air, their roads, their property values, and especially for their water. The karst topography of the Southern Missouri landscape is so porous they feared the tons of poultry manure being spread on neighboring fields over time would eventually reach their groundwater. They feared this would create the same long-term public health disaster that so many other CAFO communities were experiencing across the U.S.
The Clines and their neighbors organized into a group called Dade Lawrence Agricultural Environmental Association and researched their options. They pushed for a language change in the county ordinance, called for fines when the operator didn’t get the proper permit, and pursued every possible angle to hold the CAFO accountable for the inevitable impacts on their community.
“We were eventually told that poultry was not covered under our health ordinance, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
The situation only grew worse. Over the course of four years, the Clines were surrounded by eight more poultry operations producing for Butterball, George’s, and Cargill. Large trucks hauling birds and feed started barreling down rural roads that were not made for semis. Manure was applied thickly and carelessly on the fields around the Cline property, eventually spilling over into ponds, ditches, and even on the road. Flies swarmed the area. And the air quality became so unpredictable and nauseating that no one for miles around was safe from its sickening impact. Outdoor gatherings on the once picturesque and inviting properties were a thing of the past.
“You can’t make plans because you never know which direction the wind might blow.”
Eight years after the construction of the first barn, Joan and Conrad are still searching for justice. The rolling hills are now marred with dozens of long metal barns the size of football fields, housing millions of birds. Every time they walk outside, they wonder if they’ll be assaulted with the noxious odor of manure and rotting bird flesh. Neighbors are sick, creeks are unfishable, wells have been declared “undrinkable” by the state health department, and the Clines fear that if they have to leave the home they’ve worked and cared for all their lives, the selling price won’t be enough for them to live on.
“To see everything you’ve worked for, all your life, just be reduced to nothing… You don’t understand it until you live with it. I knew these farms existed; I knew they were there and they weren’t good ones, but until it was built in our backyard, I had no idea what it was really like.”
Due to their county government’s silence and failure to protect the rights of residents, the Clines and their neighbors were forced to watch their prized country landscape become a dumping ground for industrial agriculture. They became part of a growing brotherhood of endangered rural communities that now exist in virtually every state in the union. And in this the Clines find their only solace: they are not alone in their adversity.
Knowing they are just one among many stories of such injustice motivates the Clines to act on behalf of others, speaking from their experience at nearby public meetings and even at the state capitol. Joan and Conrad remain connected to the spreading network of citizens collectively standing against the corporate taking of these fundamental rights to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities. They know there is still hope as long as people come together in the name of a food system that rebuilds rural America rather tearing it apart, and revitalizes the land rather than exploiting it and its inhabitants for profit.