Lenawee County farmer Lynn Henning used to get dead possums and skunks stuffed in her mailbox.
She said that was before someone, apparently figuring she wasn’t getting the message, blew it up.
Hate mail and phone calls with foul language were common. So was the creepy sight of being followed on one of southeastern Michigan’s quiet country roads, something that happened frequently enough that she began telling her local sheriff’s office when she would be out and about.
Ms. Henning, a thorn in the side of big agriculture and a slew of industry regulators she felt weren’t doing their jobs, has officially entered the realm of environmental hero.
At a ceremony in San Francisco tonight, she is to be named North America’s sole winner of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize - the world’s most lucrative for grass-roots environmental activism.
The prize, established in 1990, goes annually to one activist from each of the world’s six inhabited continents.
Each of this year’s winners are to receive a $150,000 cash award.
In addition to tonight’s ceremony at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, they will be flown to Washington for a week of activities.
Those include a luncheon with a 25-member congressional delegation headed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; a one-on-one with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson; a ceremony at one of the Smithsonian museums, and the chance to deliver an Earth Day speech on Thursday in the National Mall.
In the two decades that the prize has been awarded, Ms. Henning is the first recipient whose focus has been on the operations of large livestock facilities classified as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
For years, she has raised issues with several such operations in Michigan and Ohio, where allegations of pollution, cruelty, unfair labor, and poor health-care practices arose. The industry has defended itself by saying it needs to become more consolidated to operate more efficiently and keep food prices down.
“I think people are becoming more aware of where their food is coming from,” Lorrae Rominger, the prize director, said in explaining what separated Ms. Henning from nearly 150 other nominees.
The Goldman Environmental Prize board says certain large farms have given big agriculture a bad name and that the collective problems of the worst offenders have become “the most serious and least talked-about problems in the country in terms of water and air pollution,” Ms. Rominger said.
For Ms. Henning, who farms 300 acres in Lenawee County, the heightened attention and notoriety she likely will get from the award seems overwhelming. Several national news organizations, as well as media outlets in Michigan and Ohio, interviewed her last week, she said.
“I was very honored and very humbled,” said Ms. Henning, who works for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club in a role described as CAFO water sentinel. She also is vice president of a grass-roots group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan.
Ms. Henning recalled how suspicious she and her husband, Dean, became a decade ago as they saw the landscape in the vicinity of their Hudson, Mich., farm start to change.
Used to smaller farms, the sights and smells from the larger operations didn’t sit well with them.
Ms. Henning said she was surprised to learn the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had what appeared to be a poorly defined protocol for testing area streams, groundwater, and air.
Indeed, as late as 2006, Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robert McCann told The Blade that complaints about a local hog operation were open to subjective interpretation because the agency was still, at the time, waiting on portable monitors to test what was in the air. Inspectors relied on their noses.
Ms. Henning did her own water sampling. She developed homemade test kits, generating data that gave regulators justification to follow her footsteps.
She said a turning point was when aerial monitoring began.
“They could literally see things from the air they couldn’t from the ground,” Ms. Henning said.
Ms. Henning, who has spoken at several area conferences, is credited by many in the environmental community for inspiring tighter rules on large farms throughout the Great Lakes region.
Her work led to hundreds of violations being filed against the two Hudson-area dairy farms operated by Vreba-Hoff Dairy LLC.
“It’s easily in the hundreds,” Mr. McCann said. “It might even be up to 1,000 by now.”
The companies have been mired in litigation with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office for years over proposed fines, herd size, manure treatment, and other operational issues. An order last year by Ingham County Circuit Judge James Giddings was Vreba-Hoff’s fifth court settlement with Michigan regulators since 2003. More litigation has ensued since, Mr. McCann said.
A separate - but related - entity in Wauseon called Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development LLC has assisted numerous dairy producers from the Netherlands in emigrating to the United States and establishing operations in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. One of the selling points to them has been the tri-state region’s access to water, essential for dairy operations.