A New Tool to Fight Hog Confinements

Before I tell you the good news, let’s briefly review the CAFO situation today. When over 70 neighbors in the Batavia and Eldon area opposed a 10,000-head hog confinement in their communities, they pleaded with the Valley View Swine owners to not build. They worked with Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, Inc. (JFAN) to organize. JFAN pored over the applications to find any possible deal breaker. In the end, the CAFOs were approved.

Fighting CAFOs in Iowa is a tough business. Iowa legislation favors industrial agriculture over residents and the environment. Although Jefferson County has been fortunate because of JFAN’s organization, fighting CAFOs is a challenging process.

The most effective way to stop a CAFO is through a costly lawsuit. Unfortunately, Iowa laws make it more conducive to fight CAFOs once they are built and already causing great distress to neighbors. Often rural communities can’t come up with the needed funds to mount a legal fight, and they give up.

Now Iowans across the state have hope. The Charlie Speer legal team is coming to town, joining forces with Fairfield-based attorney David E. Sykes.

Speer is an award-winning environmental attorney from Kansas City who, with his legal team of Richard Middleton of Savannah, Georgia, and Peter Bieri, has been fighting factory farms for over 17 years, consistently winning multi-million- dollar settlements.

In April, JFAN’s legal counsel David E. Sykes, an attorney retained by the Save Batavia Eldon group, invited Speer and his team to join him in fighting Valley View Swine. After several meetings, both lawyers agreed to form a legal team that will bring the expertise and resources of the Speer and Middleton Law Firms to fight this case and to consider other cases in Iowa.

What makes this so promising is that cases will typically be handled on a contingency fee basis. Clients will not have to come up with funds for legal fees, and the legal team will only be compensated if they win monetary damages for their clients. This is a huge opportunity for rural communities.

Sykes is no stranger to fighting CAFOs. He worked with JFAN for eight years and represented clients opposing CAFOs for five. Sykes provides some insights and opinions about what this will mean for Iowa.

What recourse do people have today when a hog confinement moves into their neighborhood?
JFAN has done a good job helping communities mobilize and organize against CAFOs. They developed the Good Neighbor Guidelines that incorporate the Iowa Pork Producers Association Best Management Practices. This encourages all sides to communicate and work out acceptable sitings far away from residences and public buildings. This approach is an important first step and can sometimes stop a confinement. Unfortunately, though, litigation is sometimes the only option to defend oneself.

Why is bringing in this legal team a win for Iowa?
These attorneys are reputed to be some of the top anti-CAFO environmental attorneys in the nation. Most importantly, they have a passion about their work, feel very deeply about their cases, and get very involved with their clients. They currently have cases in seven states and have significant resources to go the distance with CAFO integrators.

How will this alter the way cases are approached in Iowa?
This will be a game changer. Most litigation in Iowa involves hiring law firms on an hourly basis, and the cases can run six figures. This is where communities have been blocked. They can’t come up with those funds.

With this national legal team’s entry into Iowa, if a case is taken on a contingency basis, a client’s financial obligations are dramatically reduced. This levels the playing field.

Charlie and his team have a reputation that when they commit, there is no backing off. We now have big players who can hold their own with the multi-billion-dollar integrators like Cargill, Prestage, etc. This signals a major shift for Iowa.

How do you think this might change things for CAFO opponents and factory farming?
Rural communities are targeted since corporate interests know they have difficulty defending themselves. This will now allow the communities to go head-to-head with integrators.

It may also discourage CAFO operators from going ahead with a confinement, given the marginal return on CAFOs.

This gives Iowans hope. Not only is there JFAN, but now there is a legal team coming from out of state, winning multi-million-dollar settlements, working on a contingency basis. Iowans now have a realistic option for dealing with a factory farm in their neighborhood.

Diane Rosenberg is Executive Director of Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, Inc.