A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio
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Three years ago, Alma Hasse walked purposely, head down, toward a red brick building. The Jerome County Courthouse held a mountain of files on the county’s dairy CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, and Hasse wanted a look at them. She and her agricultural watchdog group, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment believed that Idaho’s factory farms weren’t being adequately monitored or regulated. That’s why she and a small group of her members burst into the county offices on that dreary December afternoon, requesting to see the CAFO records. But it soon became clear the group wouldn’t get what it wanted.
The office staff, caught off guard and obviously not prepared to respond to that rare and forceful request for files, complied hesitantly, but within minutes Jerome County Commissioner Charlie Howell and County Planner Nancy Marshall arrived and asked the group to give the records back.
Faces reddened, voices rose and soon a Jerome County cop arrived, looking as confused as everyone else. Marshall said the county simply didn’t have an employee available to sit with the group as they pored over files. Hasse’s daughter, Shavan, demanded that Marshall cite the county code allowing her to withhold the requested documents. Marshall couldn’t. The confrontation devolved into an awkward standoff and eventually the ICARE group shuffled out of the building having only glimpsed the files.
That small tug of war over agricultural records points to a larger national tussle over public access that has grown more pitched with time. Activist groups are becoming more aggressive in their pursuit of evidence–like undercover videotaping at factory farms–that they believe will starkly expose the environmental damage, animal welfare violations and worker abuses they allege occur regularly on America’s industrial farms. Those same farms are demanding that laws be put in place to insulate them from what they characterize as unwarranted attacks on their already heavily regulated business practices.
As a result, numerous state legislatures have proposed or passed bills to limit the public’s influence over commercial agriculture. Nationwide, bills restricting access to agricultural records, inhibiting the filing of lawsuits against farms–and even banning the photographing and filming of farms–have been written.
The Idaho Legislature passed several bills this session that fit the pattern. House Bill 210, the Right to Farm bill, restricts the public’s ability to press lawsuits against existing agricultural operations; House Bill 269 takes how dairies manage their manure off the public record by redefining those practices as trade secrets; and House Bill 328 imposes new requirements on requests to view public records.
Democrat state Rep. Wendy Jaquet said it is always a bad idea to infringe on the public’s right to know how their food is produced. She was one of only a handful of legislators who voted against the Right to Farm and dairies bills.
“People need access to information,” Jaquet said. “Things need to be transparent. And doing bills like this doesn’t drive home that message. You know in people’s hearts they say, ‘Well, who is the government for? Is it for big business, is it for large industrial dairies or is it for me?’”
“These are not bills that are brought forth by small family farms,” said Hasse. “These are bills that are crafted and designed and written by agri-business corporations and they benefit nobody other than those same agri-business corporations. I think, if they have their way, we would know absolutely nothing about these facilities. They’d be in hog heaven, no pun intended.”
Through ICARE’s continuing, if unwelcome search through public records, Hasse said they’ve found hard statistical evidence that the Idaho Department of Agriculture is not adequately regulating factory farms. In fact, she said, “about one-third of the time when the Idaho State Department of Agriculture should be showing these facilities as being in non-compliance, they’re not.”
Brent Olmstead, executive director and legislative lobbyist for Milk Producers of Idaho, shook his head when the subject of ICARE came up. He acknowledged that several legislative bills this session were written to restrict public access to agricultural records and make it more difficult to file lawsuits, but he blamed much of that on ICARE itself.
“[ICARE] has created enough problems,” Olmstead said, citing what he described as a particularly confusing and confrontational presentation ICARE gave to the House Agricultural Committee. “That the Legislature came forward and wanted different bills to change some of the open records access because of this unreasonable, outrageous request done by the ICARE group.”
Olmstead said ICARE has requested more than 100,000 documents (which Hasse denies) in what he calls a pointless, expensive and time-consuming “fishing expedition.” But, he also said, the problem is much larger than a single activist group.
“There is a fear nationwide in agriculture,” Olmstead said in an office filled with dairy cow art and agricultural knickknacks. “You go back 30 years and there were attacks on the mining industry and it was done through lawsuits and very strict, not necessarily science-based regulations. Eventually, we had a lot of unemployment for miners, mines being shut down, the mining industry being a fraction of what it used to be.”
It then moved on to forestry products. We now import most of our soft lumber out of Canada, where they don’t have all the lawsuits and the restrictions. And we’re seeing that, over the last five or six years, move onto agriculture. Not every state had a mining industry. Not every state had a forestry industry. Pretty much every state has an agriculture industry. And so you see a lot of that fear around the country and different ways of curtailing it,” he said.
Olmstead doesn’t think banning the unauthorized photographing and filming of farms–as had been proposed this year by the Iowa and Florida legislatures–is the right answer to the problem. But he said, “the fear is grand enough and great enough, you’re going to see some different ideas come out.”
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Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.