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Whole Living Awards: Lynn Henning, the Watchdog

For the first Whole Living Awards, we're honoring eco-heroines who pour their passion into turning our blue marble green -- including the winner featured here. 

Who
Lynn Henning, 53

Eco Achievement
Exposing the polluting practices of livestock factory farms

On a crystalline September morning, south-central Michigan's Lenawee County couldn't appear more bucolic. Goldenrod dapples the unsown meadows, and hundred-acre patches of amber cornstalks and dusty-green soybeans blanket the fields. Traffic on the dirt roads is nonexistent. 

But the beauty of this rural landscape belies an ugly truth: Noxious chemicals are slowly tainting the region's air and water. The pollution can be traced to the proliferation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) -- feedlots that confine thousands of cattle or pigs in windowless, hangar-size barns. 

CAFOs make up only about 5 percent of all U.S. animal operations, but they contain half of the animals producing the nation's meat and dairy products. Crammed indoors on concrete floors, CAFO animals spend their days eating and, inevitably, eliminating. 

A large CAFO produces as much waste daily as a city of 411,000 does. And while municipalities are required to treat their waste before it's discharged, CAFOs are allowed to store liquefied manure in open pits (called lagoons) until operators are ready to spray it on leased farm fields as fertilizer. 

"We've got 12 of these operations within 10 miles of our house," says Lynn Henning, who monitors CAFO discharges for Michigan's Sierra Club, as I tag along on a surveillance mission in her hometown of Clayton. "When they're spraying waste, the smell is so bad you can't open your windows or sit outside."

A grandmother with long white hair, Henning isn't being prissy. She's a farmer herself -- she and her husband, Dean, grow corn and soybeans on a 300-acre plot that's been in his family for four generations. 

But the more than 60 lagoons near the Hennings' home hold 400 million gallons of liquefied manure each year. This toxic farrago contains cleaning solutions, pesticides, blood, hormones, antibiotics, and other substances common to industrial agriculture. As this mixture decomposes, it generates methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, gases that can cause burning sinuses and respiratory illness. 

Diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning, Henning's mother- and father-in-law, who have lived within 1,000 feet of a CAFO operating since 1999, routinely experience short-term memory loss, balance problems, and delayed reactions. Across the nation, rainfall has sluiced CAFO waste, transporting such pathogens as Cryptosporidium, E. coli, and Listeria from fields into waterways. Storms have ruptured lagoons and sent raw manure into creeks, killing huge numbers of fish. 

It gets worse: CAFO's overuse of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease contributes to the rise of superbugs. Even more perniciously, CAFOs force neighbors to take sides: jobs or health? 

Henning's pastor asked her to leave her church when a congregant, a CAFO employee, complained about her activism. A neighbor and CAFO operator who came to Henning's wedding 30 years ago now calls her a terrorist. 

"People here used to support each other," Henning says. "Now there's a distance. People lock their doors." 

Slowing to a crawl, Henning raises her camera and shoots a series of photographs. One is of a plume of liquid waste spraying 100 feet in the air to fertilize a CAFO field, directing a brown mist of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in our direction. Henning closes her window against the stench and dust -- "I'll have a headache before the day is out," she says -- and steps on the gas. 

All the farmers around here know her car. "Now I collect my evidence quickly," she says. To document CAFO violations, Henning often drives 100 miles a day with her binoculars, video camera, GPS, and water-sampling equipment. Back home, she submits images and water-quality analyses, performed by an independent lab, to the state's Department of Environmental Quality, which has consequently issued hundreds of water-pollution citations to CAFO operators. 

For her efforts against the factory farms, Henning won the prestigious $150,000 Goldman Prize last year. Around Lenawee County, however, Henning is less celebrated. "I've had dead animals left on my porch, and my mailbox was blown up," she says in a steady voice. "I've been followed and run off the road. Last December someone shot out my granddaughter's bedroom window." The girl was unharmed but terrified. 

"After that, I thought very deeply about [my activism] and concluded that if I left, I wouldn't be setting a good example." 

Henning knew little about factory farms until 2000, when she smelled manure at a nearby lake. To learn more about drainage in the area, she filed her first Freedom of Information Act request. 

"The drain commission gave me the form to fill out," she explains with a shrug. "Then I started mapping CAFOs and checking waterways." Shocked by the violations she uncovered, Henning and others formed Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, which provides information on CAFO pollution and its health impacts. 

In addition to documenting violations, Henning makes frequent speeches about the need for tighter monitoring and enforcement of CAFO regulations. Stricter controls paid for by CAFO owners will surely raise the cost of meat, but Henning cuts consumers little slack. "There's no such thing as cheap meat," she barks. "People need to be responsible." 

For Henning, that means buying organic meat from a farmer she knows and eating fish from her own pond. She also grows vast quantities of vegetables in her garden. Two chest freezers in her barn contain enough produce --  corn, broccoli, peppers, strawberries -- to last months. 

"At the grocery store, ask where your food is coming from," Henning says, sprawled on her pond's dock. "We need small family farms and need to teach our children to grow food." She squints into the late afternoon sun. As predicted, her head aches after the day's manure tour. But she shakes it off and stiffly rises. 

"Come on," she says with a generous smile. "I want to show you my garden."

Read More: See all Whole Living Awards winners.

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