Cucurbits, cover crops and CAFOs

September 30, 2012

It’s the GREAT GIANT HONKIN’ PUMPKIN, Charlie Brown!

It’s been a couple of years since I covered the Giant Pumpkin circuit. As Triton College’s Ken Benson once told me, the secret to growing a giant pumpkin is “manure, manure, manure.” Wiser and more eloquent words were never spoken.

George Janowiak knows a thing or two about growing giant pumpkins, too. He’s a member of the Illinois Giant Pumpkin Growers Association and, last year, he even put together a video about what it’s like to grow, transport and weigh one of those babies.

Sunday, Janowiak is on location at Benston’s Pumpkin Farm in Homer Glen for the annual Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off. The actual weighing doesn’t begin until noon, but he’ll set the scene for The Mike Nowak Show, interviewing a few of the growers and talking about the kind of pumpkin year it’s been.

Cover crops

I have Kim Marsin of Sweet Home Organics to thank for one of my guests this Sunday morning. I got into a conversation with her about cover crops a few months back and, without hesitation, she told me that I needed to talk to Art Scheele of American Organic in Warren, Illinois. So that’s what I’m doing this morning.

Their mission statement includes this line, “To research and develop products compatible with sustainable agriculture.” That includes cover crops, alfalfa, clovers, peas, summer forages, brassicas, turnips and more.

I spoke with Art the other day about cover crops for the coming fall and winter months and he confirmed that now is the time to get them in the ground, whether you are a farmer, community gardener or just a backyard dabbler. I expect to learn a lot this morning.

The battle against CAFOs in Illinois

What do you think you would do if a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), along with its attendant smells, sights and pollution was allowed to be built within a mile of your rural home?

That’s the question that David and Renee Leifheit of China, Illinois were faced with when the Illinois Department of Agriculture approved the siting of a a CAFO near their home in Ogle County six years ago. Reasonably, they felt as though the value of their land had been significantly diminished and that they should be given a break in their tax assessment. However, the county did not agree and denied their request.

So they took the issue to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB), where the PTAB hearing officer encouraged the parties to hash out an agreement before resorting to a formal hearing. That suggestion led to a settlement that reduced the Leifheit’s property taxes by 12.5%, retroactive to the date of the CAFO’s construction.

While the Leifheits say they are pleased with the result, their situation illustrates just how serious a problem CAFOs can be for property owners unfortunate enough to be in the same zipcode–serious enough that the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project has a link called CAFO Impact on Value of Proximate Properties. Written by Dr. John A. Kilpatrick, It is a detailed analysis of the negative impacts to property values caused by factory farms. Stunningly, Dr. Kilpatrick refers to an article he wrote in 2001 that found CAFOs can cause surrounding properties to lose between 50% to 90% of their value.

This is all the more interesting in light of complaints by Illinois Citzens for Clean Air and Water (ICCAW) against the Illinois EPA. Basically, the ICCAW has accused the IEPA of being lax in their enforcement of the Clean Water Act, specifically as it related to keeping inventory o Illinois factory farms. To that end, ICCAW  and visiting attorneys met with Region 5 Federal EPA in Chicago this week to discuss a number of ongoing environmental impacts Illinois is suffering from under-regulated factory farms. Rules hearings are currently occurring around the state which allows citizens to file input on the public record that would call for stricter regulations on factory farms in order to protect our natural resources and public health.

Joining me today:

Karen L. Hudson, who is an Illinois farmer, as well as consultant for Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and a spokesperson for Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water ICCAW and a member of Families Against Rural Messes (FARM).

Michele Merkel is co-director of the Food & Water Justice project and was formerly the Chesapeake Regional Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance, where she worked with Robert F. Kennedy. Merkel was a former attorney for the Federal EPA and, when the Bush Administration blocked efforts by the EPA to pursue factory farming issues, she and her colleague Eric Schaeffer left their posts at Federal EPA and together formed the Environmental Integrity Project. Sadly, the Obama Administration doesn’t seem to be any more forward thinking about CAFOs than their predecessors.

Danielle Diamond is the Executive Director for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, which is a national non-profit organization that educates the public about the problems arising from factory farms and assists communities dealing with their impacts while, at the same time, provides support to those trying to reclaim agriculture by producing and marketing sustainable goods. Ms. Diamond is also an attorney advocate and organizer for the ICCAW and a Research Associate with the Department of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University (NIU). She recently authored a report in the Drake Law Journal that states in part:

Until now, Illinois’ National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program has failed to adequately regulate harmful pollutant discharges from industrialized farming complexes into waters of the state. The system has gone largely unenforced and has failed to provide incentives for Confined Animal Feeding Operation’s (CAFOs) to comply with current regulations. Self monitoring, small penalties and lack of consistent on-site inspections have all contributed to the failure of the permitting program.

Due to recent changes in the federal regulatory scheme, Illinois has an new opportunity to enforce Clean Water Act (CWA) measures to protect its water from CAFO pollutants. However, existing challenges to the newly enacted United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) NPDES regulations in the Second Circuit will undoubtably effect Illinois’ enactment of its revised permit program. Several aspects of the federal regulations were vacated and remanded and thus uncertainty about the state of the law is warranted.

That our clean water, clean air and our very health are under constant attack from corporate interests is not news. And yet, sometimes the scope of the attack is breathtaking. Literally.