By Nick Engelfried / Waging Nonviolence
When Alice Morrison was growing up in suburban Louisville, Kentucky, her mother taught her to grow tomatoes in the garden. It was about as close as Morrison, a future farmer and small farms advocate, got to agricultural work back then. “I lived in a place where agriculture wasn’t very accessible,” Morrison said. “There were large tobacco fields and animal farming operations, but I didn’t feel connected to any of that.”
Morrison’s early exposure to grassroots organizing had more to do with opposing the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in her state. “I would go to mountaintop removal protests with my mother,” she said. “Through that issue, I learned how polluting industries can impact our communities and natural resources in ways that transcend property lines.”
After college, Morrison accepted a job with an environmental nonprofit in Oregon, where she campaigned on issues like the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. “I started to see how important and complex agricultural issues really are. Eventually, I realized I didn’t want to be the campaigner — I wanted to be the farmer growing food in a sustainable way.”
Morrison stepped down from full-time advocacy and became a farmer, working for landowners who practiced diversified agriculture that included both plant crops and free-range animals. “One family had four kids,” she said. “They were making a successful living growing food and raising a family on a small farm. Industrial agriculture doesn’t want you to believe it’s possible to do that — but I saw it firsthand.” Eventually, she started her own farm.
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Morrison’s return to advocacy was motivated partly by a desire to flip the narrative that paints small-scale, diversified farming as a relic of the past. After five years working as a farmer herself, she started a job with Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon nonprofit of which she was already a member. She began her new position just as a fight over industrial animal agriculture in Oregon was about to explode — with potential to affect the climate movement as profoundly as the struggle against mountaintop removal did a decade earlier.
This past summer, small farming advocates like Morrison saw one of their biggest wins yet, passing the first major piece of legislation in years to limit industrial factory farms enacted anywhere in the country in years. The victory could provide a glimpse of what a policy-focused national movement against the most climate-destructive forms of animal agriculture could look like.
A win against factory farming
As animal agriculture became more concentrated and centralized during the last century, huge swaths of the country saw family farmers be displaced by factory farms, often called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. Notorious for their environmental impacts and cruel treatment of animals, CAFOs confine hundreds or thousands of livestock in small spaces where they are fed artificial diets with the goal of maximizing profit. The tons of manure produced by CAFOs are frequently over-applied to agricultural fields, or stored in huge artificial holding ponds called “lagoons.” The facilities are also water-intensive, with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimating 20 percent of freshwater used by humans worldwide is going to animal feed production.
The climate impacts of factory farms are even more concerning, and have been well documented. CAFOs are a source of the potent greenhouse gas methane, which is expelled by ruminants like cows and produced when manure in lagoons breaks down without oxygen. Factory farming’s carbon footprint has long been a concern of animal welfare and some environmental organizations, but until recently public engagement campaigns around the issue have tended to center on promoting consumer lifestyle changes. This is in contrast to the larger climate movement, which has increasingly shifted away from lifestyle campaigns to push for policy and systemic change. Recent events in Oregon help show what a similar approach to campaigning against factory farms could entail.
In July, Gov. Tina Kotek signed Oregon Senate Bill 85, which places a moratorium on factory farms’ ability to use unlimited amounts of groundwater. While some advocates consider the bill to be a diluted compromise, it has potential to significantly limit the destructive activities of CAFOs in a state where a healthy remnant of the family farming economy still thrives. On a national level, it represents the first major state legislative victory against factory farming in the U.S. in years.
SB 85 is the product of a years-long organizing effort, whose ultimate goal is to pass a full moratorium on new factory farms in Oregon. “Engaging in many separate fights against proposed projects ends up being like a game of whack-a-mole,” said Krissy Kasserman of Food and Water Watch, a national organization that got involved in Oregon factory farm politics during a fight over new CAFO projects in the state’s Morrow County. That effort has seen major successes, like when the industrial mega-dairy Lost Valley shut down in 2019. However, even as that project went down in defeat, new factory farming proposals cropped up elsewhere in the state.
“Certainly, people in communities affected by these facilities want them to be better regulated,” Kasserman said. “But what they really want is to not live next to a factory farm at all.”
With this sentiment in mind, Stand Up to Factory Farms — a coalition including Food and Water Watch, Friends of Family Farmers and other organizations opposing CAFOs in Oregon — set the goal of passing a statewide factory farming moratorium. “We were told by policymakers that this was a political nonstarter,” Morrison said. However, public support for some type of legislative action was intense.
“There were three full public hearings on SB 85 this past spring, all packed with supporters,” Morrison said. “Dozens of people on the speaker list didn’t get to testify because they ran out of time. It was far and beyond one of the most prolific public engagement campaigns our organization has seen.” Support for action against factory farming came from environmental, climate and animal rights organizations, as well as small farmers whose livelihoods are jeopardized by CAFOs flooding the market with cheap meat and dairy products.
Public support for action against factory farming got SB 85 over the finish line. More work remains to be done — but the win could provide a template for pushing back against the powerful factory farm industry in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Toward a national small farming movement?
Twenty years ago, the climate movement’s efforts to get the U.S. off fossil fuels were in a comparable place to where the movement against factory farming stands today. Awareness of climate change and other impacts of the fossil economy, like mountaintop removal, was growing. However, the public narrative around climate focused largely on changing individuals’ behavior to reduce energy consumption. Only in 2005 and 2006 would a group of Northeastern states and California become the first states to take serious policy action aimed specifically at curbing carbon emissions. Congressional action, of course, took much longer.
In those days, even seriously limiting new fossil fuel development seemed like an out-of-reach goal. The George W. Bush administration planned to build over 150 new coal plants, making the fossil fuel juggernaut appear unstoppable. Yet, it took less than 10 years for the industry’s veneer of unassailability to begin crumbling.
An early effort to limit fossil fuel expansion — the Beyond Coal campaign spearheaded by the Sierra Club and other groups — began as an effort to stop the flood of new coal plants under the Bush administration. Beyond Coal used every legal tool at its disposal to challenge coal projects in court and during the permitting process. Meanwhile, climate organizations mobilized supporters to turn out to regulatory hearings and other public forums.
By 2010, almost every proposed new coal plant in the U.S. was defeated, allowing climate activists to turn their attention to retiring existing plants. While litigation and regulatory rulemaking remained important, activists also won legislative victories in some states. Those efforts, in turn, helped lay the groundwork for other state laws to encourage clean energy.
The U.S. climate movement’s biggest legislative victory so far came last year, with passage of climate provisions in the federal Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA focuses mostly on electricity generation and transportation, with relatively small investments in sustainable agriculture. However, the success of SB 85 in Oregon shows how a national effort to limit and eventually eliminate factory farming might replicate the approach used by activists against coal and other fossil fuels.
While certain states, including Oregon and Washington, eventually passed laws to phase coal out of the electricity mix, most Beyond Coal victories did not involve outright bans on the fuel. Rather, the movement used legislation, state and local rulemaking processes, and EPA regulations to force utilities and coal companies to begin internalizing costs of pollution. The result was a nationwide shift to lower-carbon fuels that became more cost competitive.
It is possible to envision a similar effort to end factory farming through a combination of regulatory actions and outright bans. However, doing so would almost certainly require a broad-based nationwide coalition of groups. It would also need to put forward viable alternatives to the factory farming industry, just as Beyond Coal did with clean energy.
A positive vision for farming
“Stand Up to Factory Farms is a mix of national, state and local groups,” Kasserman said. “Some organizations focus on family farms, others on animal welfare, climate or protecting the Columbia River Gorge. Together, we packed hearings on SB 85 so there was standing room only.”
The support for SB 85 in Oregon is certainly reminiscent of the kinds of coalitions Beyond Coal built — which included not just climate groups, but public health organizations, human rights advocates and more. Campaigns against factory farming have the potential to build similarly diverse alliances because, like coal, intensive animal agriculture negatively impacts so many different stakeholders.
“What surprises many people is that factory farms are nightmares not only for animals and the environment, but for farmers, too,” said Adam Mason, senior manager for farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA. “The standards and practices in these facilities are almost entirely dictated by industrial animal agriculture. At the same time, independent farmers are also struggling to compete in a marketplace flooded by products that are falsely cheapened by the corner-cutting practices of factory farming.”
The ASPCA, which is a Stand Up to Factory Farms member, mobilized its network of 18,000 Oregon supporters to contact legislators and attend hearings to support SB 85. Its deep involvement in the campaign shows how animal advocates, who have long opposed factory farming, can unite with climate groups and small farmers to push for policy change in the agricultural sector.
Oregon factory farming opponents are now working to ensure SB 85 is fully implemented, while building toward more policy wins that shift the food system toward lower-impact forms of agriculture. Key to this vision is the idea that sustainable, diversified family farms — like those Morrison worked on — can form the basis of an agricultural economy that is better for farmers, animals and the climate. Small farms are not without any environmental impact; for example, all cattle produce methane during the digestive process. However, small-scale, free-range animal agriculture can also foster healthy soils that sequester carbon, while putting less strain on regional water supplies and eliminating the need for methane-emitting manure lagoons.
In Oregon, SB 85 already seems to be helping to encourage a shift toward this more sustainable form of agriculture. Since the bill’s passage, three proposed factory farms — the Easterday mega-dairy in Morrow Countyand two industrial poultry farms in the Willamette Valley — have been abandoned by their developers. This is good news for the climate and also small farming communities who will not face local competition from these massive projects.
“Part of our philosophy is you cannot only oppose or restrict the bad actors, although that is important,” Morrison said. “You also have to lift up folks doing things that align with good stewardship of the land. Any solution to factory farming will be more viable if it puts forward that kind of positive vision.”
Nick Engelfried is an environmental writer, educator, and activist living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of “Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change.”