Photo above copyright SaveFarmFamilies.org
By Len Lazarick
Americans ate an average of 60 pounds of chicken last year, about four times as much chicken as they were eating in the 1950s.
Like most city dwellers and suburbanites, we’re pretty oblivious about how our food gets to the dinner table, except for the trip to the supermarket.
Most of our chicken starts in place like the Hudson family farm in Berlin, Md., just west of Ocean City.
In 2010, the Waterkeeper Alliance sued Al and Kristin Hudson for keeping a pile of chicken manure outside one of its chicken houses. The suit alleged that bacteria and other pollutants were running off the chicken litter into a ditch that ran into the Franklin Branch of the Pocomoke River and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay.
Getting the facts wrong
The only problem with the lawsuit was that wasn’t true. The pile seen from a plane was refined human sewage sludge from Ocean City. That’s what the Maryland Department of the Environment determined when it sent inspectors to examine the pile.
At first, they fined the Hudsons, then the department dropped the fine.
But the Waterkeepers plowed ahead with their lawsuit. The case might have generated little attention outside coverage in the Delmarva Farmer or Salisbury Times if the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore hadn’t been helping sue both the Hudsons and Perdue Farms, for whom they were raising the chickens.
This meant that a state-sponsored law clinic was going to court against not only a small family farmer on the Eastern Shore who had to drive a school bus for extra income, but also against one of the largest and most influential companies central to the Eastern Shore economy. Gov. Martin O’Malley eventually got involved.
Kill the chicken to scare the monkey
It was this scenario that made me think of a Chinese saying: Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.
In this case, the chicken was Al Hudson and the monkey was Perdue.
That’s what the new 15-minute documentary “Collateral Damage” is about. It is not balanced news story about the two-year lawsuit; it is about how and why it affected a small family running a 300-acre farm.
The film accuses the environmentalists of targeting the little guy to get at the big guy, Perdue. Al Hudson, who provides much of the commentary in the film, says by involving the clinic of the state law school, “I paid to sue myself.”
The involvement of the law school produced one of the most heated debates in the Maryland Senate over the state budget, when senators wanted to withhold money from the law school until they got a report.
That debate centered on academic freedom, versus the use of the law clinic to bully a struggling farmer and a major industry. Gov. Martin O’Malley, generally a friend of environmentalists, sided with the Hudsons; he appears in the documentary.
You could raise a similar point about academic freedom with Capital News Service. It is run by the University of Maryland journalism school and covers major state issues with young reporters whose copy is used by many news outlets, including MarylandReporter.com.
But a major difference between Capital News Service and the Environmental Law Clinic is that inherent in the teaching of journalism is the commitment to balance, airing both sides of a topic fairly. That is opposite to the one-sided advocacy that happens in our law courts.
Plaintiffs continued to press the suit
The Waterkeepers continued to pursue the lawsuit even when they found out it was not chicken manure in the pile. Senior U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson in his 50-page opinion is fairly astounded that the waterkeepers kept insisting that the pollution was coming from chicken litter when they knew it wasn’t and that they failed to test for it. In the fairly polite language of judicial opinions, Nickerson also basically finds the plaintiff’s expert was making things up, as was another key witness. (Article continues below photo.)
This is not to say that there wasn’t a manure problem on the Hudson farm. The judge found that it came from the 85 to 90 cows and calves on the farm, producing 3,000 pounds of manure a day, not to mention the 150,000 gallons of urine they produce each year.
But the cows are not what interested the Waterkeepers; their target was the vast industrial agriculture complex overseen by Perdue. The judge ruled against them and they lost the lawsuit.
A coalition of farmers and farm organization as well as Perdue, came together to support the Hudsons and formed the ongoing group SaveFarmFamilies.org. The group used some of the money they got from the plaintiffs to pay to produce the documentary.
Lee Richardson, a Shore farmer who heads the group and appears in the movie, told the audience at the Baltimore premiere Tuesday night that the other farmers wouldn’t have supported the Hudsons if they had been doing something wrong. But they weren’t.
Other farmers, Richardson said, are also anxious to work with environmentalists and clean up their acts to avoid the troubles the Hudsons experienced.
Are there problems with disposal of chicken manure and the other polluting byproducts of our appetite for chicken? The solutions have gotten better, but there is a long way to go.
But those solutions don’t run through a federal court in Baltimore, and a lawsuit based on the federal Clean Water Act is a fairly blunt instrument to cure pollution — unless the goal is really to kill the industry in Maryland.
“It’s still a struggle every day,” Hudson says in the movie. “It’s hard to get up and go.”
The family may have won this battle, but one of the key senators defending the Environmental Law Clinic was Brian Frosh, who will likely be the next attorney general. Maryland’s attorney general has major environmental enforcement powers, and Frosh was one of the greenest legislators in Annapolis.
The Eastern Shore farm community is not about to let down its guard. The Hudsons may not be the last attempt to kill the chicken to scare the monkey.