Growers and Greens Unite: Farmers and Environmentalists Shuck Age-Old Stereotypes to Fight Common Foes

By Haslam, Gerald | Sierra, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

Growers and Greens Unite: Farmers and Environmentalists Shuck Age-Old Stereotypes to Fight Common Foes


Haslam, Gerald, Sierra


GERALD HASLAM is author of The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland (1993) and Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California (1999), both from the University of California Press. He lives in Penngrove, California. Brian Blain is a straight talker who will tell you what you need to hear, which is not necessarily what you want to hear. "A lot of farmers genuinely believe that environmentalists are out to destroy agriculture," the head of California's largest pecan-growing and -processing operation announces. "Many things can be done that would be good for farmers and for the environment, but suspicion prevents people from working together." In the central-valley city of Visalia, Blain and the Sierra Club's Richard Garcia smashed the stereotypes when they took on a local irrigation district hell-bent on cementing an earthen canal and ruining its riparian habitat, home to century-old valley oaks and the San Joaquin kit fox. "We had to work together," explains Garcia. "The stakes were simply too high to let ourselves lose."

Common concerns can bring diverse groups to the table, but overcoming mistrust between farmers and conservationists has been particularly vexing. Environmentalists are often lumped in with outsiders--particularly the bureaucrats who dispense rules and regulations from afar--who don't understand what's really happening on the farm, and conservationists often discount farmers as stubborn and narrow-minded. Both characterizations have, at times, been apt. But "grower-green" alliances are developing nationally, catalyzed by high-profile issues like the explosive growth of industrial livestock operations and the struggle to keep family farms afloat and maintain the rural character of local communities. (It's a good thing, too, since farms and ranches occupy more than half of all land in the Lower 48.) People with wildly different backgrounds are learning more about each other as they come together to defeat common opponents.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are among both groups' most determined and well-funded foes. "There are hog farms here so huge they seem to extend from horizon to horizon, and their stench has unified farmers and environmentalists," explains Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program. "The people who suffer as a result of hog factories aren't newcomers. They're people who've been farming for generations before the corporate hog operations showed up."

In Missouri, farmers defied the powerful Farm Bureau in 1998 and joined environmentalists to seek endangered designation for a small fish, the Topeka shiner. As cattle farmer Martha Stevens reasoned, "If the water kills the fish, it can't be good for us." That simple logic packed a hearing in the small town of Bethany, with local farmers concerned about what runoff from industrial hog farms was doing to their environment. "The shiner is an indicator that stream water is safe and clean," Stevens notes, explaining why small farmers supported the designation even though they would be required to keep soil out of waterways. "They figured it was something we could live with." While Stevens's water comes from wells rather than streams polluted by massive hog farms, she suspects the two sources are intertwined; besides, she says, "my kids used to wade and swim in these streams. They can't do that with their kids today. Not when the water is loaded with E. coli and nitrates and other crap."

According to Ken Midkiff, clean-water campaign director for the Sierra Club, environmental groups are in a good position to lend a hand on farm-related issues. "We deal with everything from organic to sustainable to pesticides to monoculture to CAFOs and everything in between," he says. "Farmers recognize that we are much more in tune with their interests than the commodity groups, particularly the Farm Bureau."

With more than 5 million members, 2,800 county bureaus, and a Washington, D. …

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