Raising grassroots voices to take on corporate factory farms

Land Stewardship Project (LSP) is a Minnesota-based grassroots organization that is committed to breaking down power and consolidation in the food farming system while supporting small and medium farmers to build viable, values-based farming and ranching operations. They do this by organizing local campaigns, advocating for better policy on local, regional and federal levels and providing training, resources, and support to producers. LSP has a team of 30 staff across 3 offices in Minnesota, with folks in Wisconsin. They represent and support about 4,000 members, two-thirds of whom are farmers or rural residents based in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and a larger network of about 40,000 supporters. A large part of LSP’s work involves fighting dairy factory farming operations in the state. Since they began this work, LSP and their members have successfully stopped 40 corporate factory farms. They continue to help community members build power against powerful regional players while working with regional and national allies to shift state and federal policy on factory farms. We chatted with Policy Director Sean Carroll and Organizer Matthew Sheets about their local and regional efforts to stop factory farming, and the work they are doing to support sustainable animal agriculture in the region. 

Why is phasing out factory farming a priority for LSP’s membership and larger community? 

Our members are driven to organize against factory farms because they care about pushing back against corporate power.  Factory farms are the dominant corporate power in this region. Morris, Minnesota, for instance, is home to Riverview Dairy Farm which owns up to 27% of the dairy cows in Minnesota and is one of the largest dairy operations in the state.Most of the businesses in town are now owned by the one family or group that owns those barns. People feel the impact this has on their community.

Factory farming drives out small and mid size farmers. The Farm Bureau talks about how it takes “all kinds of agriculture — big and small,” but when you put up a big operation that’s got 100,000 cows, that means you’re driving out a 100 small farms with 100 cows off of their land. The effect trickles down to processing too. Those who can get a 100 cows at a time get a much better price at the butcher or processor than someone who can send a few cows at a time. In Minnesota, we have a lot of dairy coops left but even they have implemented practices like volume premium, i.e. if the coop can send 10 trucks to you, they’ll give you a better hauling feel than someone who does organic raising and can only fill half a truck at a time.

What are the challenges of organizing against factory farming, and what has made campaigns successful?

Factory farms are often owned by people who are known to the community so it’s not an easy thing to organize against one unless you have other community members standing with you. So a large part of our work involves engaging deeply with the community and making sure people feel empowered to speak up about these things with their neighbors and local decision makers.

There’s multiple decision makers when it comes to factory farms, and you can go through different layers of government but so far, most of our victories have been at the township level. In Minnesota, the cities and towns have authority when it comes to zoning and can set rules about how land is used so you can talk about how close a factory farm can be to water supply, or other peoples houses, and you can set animal unit caps per farm. But this differs by state. In Wisconsin, local governments don’t have the same level of authority at the local level.

We’ve also had luck putting direct pressure on operators. There was an operator that was going to expand, and members came together to do their own air quality testing for hydrogen sulfide.  We put together a report and used that to bring others in the area to the county commissioners offices to say that our community doesn’t want this, and the operators pulled their proposal.

Other times, we’ve focused on gaining enough public support so county officials can then feel confident about enforcing the rules. This involves public education and bringing people together, door knocking campaigns, calls and rallies.

How does this local grassroots organizing and advocacy connect with your policy work on a federal and state level?

There’s a million policies that you could have in Minnesota to phase out factory farms, from regulating water and air pollution to zoning to putting caps on the size of farms. But it’s not about what the right policy to win is, it’s about power. The question is: What’s it going to take to build up enough power to change something at the state or federal level? If we get enough towns, cities, and counties on board with something, it’s possible to win statewide, and if we have enough power across states, we can win something nationally.

The way the agriculture economy is structured, a lot of decisions cannot be made on the local level. For instance, if we have to do anything around the price for dairy, that can only be changed at the national level. We are in regional and national coalitions where we learn from each other and see how we can all work together. Each state is in a different cultural and political context but one thing we’re all working together on is to move things in the Farm Bill.

What are some emerging priorities within the Farm Bill?

Federal policy has been a big part of our work for a long time. LSP members can take some credit for helping to start the Conservation Stewardship Program in the Farm Bill in the mid to late 90s. We got small and midsize farmers together to discuss the issues they were facing and brought folks out to DC to lobby to carve out the program.

We’re currently talking to farmer members about what they want to see in the Farm Bill — we’ve done 700 surveys and multiple listening sessions, and will zoom in on exact priorities soon. An emerging concern is that some programs and resources in the Farm Bill are used to prop up factory farms. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program(EQIP) programs for instance: recently the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) put out a report showing that all the EQIP funding in Minnesota was going to factory farms. Aside from pushing back on that, our two priorities related to consolidation in agriculture are supporting the the FSRA and strengthening the Packers and Stockyards Act. We are actively organizing on these. For example, an LSP member was invited to testify on the FSRA.

Factory farming is currently the dominant production method for meat, dairy and poultry in the US but we know that there’s a better way — how is LSP supporting farmers who want to practise sustainable animal agriculture?

Our mission is to not only stop factory farms but also support systems that are based on our values of stewardship, democracy, and building strong economies. That’s what people want — the vast majority of people agree with our values and our mission but we have a system that makes it hard for people to succeed in that way.

Aside from fighting corporate control and advocating for small and medium producers and communities, LSP also has a long history of directly supporting farmers and ranchers. Fifty percent of our work is just farmer-to-farmer education which includes beginning farmer training, education on soil health and other stewardship processes, and getting access to land. LSP has put close to 1,000 beginner farmers in contact with land or resources, and has helped many farmers implement and manage rotational grazing and shift to more regenerative ways of raising livestock and farming sustainably for the whole community while also being profitable. We need to show folks that these possibilities exist.

LSP and their members are currently campaigning to stop the expansion of a factory farm in their community. Watch now to learn more about the campaign and how you can support them:

Inspired? Join LSP in taking a pledge to say ‘no’ to factory farms!