Group targets large farms in radio ads

Sierra Club sees environmental woes

April 21, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Alarmed at the growth of factory farms, the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club is launching a three-week radio campaign aimed at consumers and small family farmers.

The idea is to try to educate consumers about environmental problems associated with large-scale livestock production and to overcome what environmentalists say is the deep-rooted suspicion of their efforts by farmers the club contends are threatened by huge corporate farms.

"What we see is a continuing industrialization of our food system, and it's not just in the poultry and dairy industries," said Chris Bedford, who heads the chapter's water, food and farm campaign. "There's a divide in Maryland between those who support a factory system that is rapidly expanding and those who want to see a safe, diversified, local food supply."

Farm leaders say the two 60-second radio spots -- set to begin running today on small stations in Hagerstown, Salisbury, Westminster and other rural areas -- are the latest intrusion by suburban do-gooders with little understanding of the complexities of modern agriculture.

"This is part of our effort to reach out to farmers, to talk to them directly," Bedford said. "We're all on the same side here."

The campaign, which comes after an unsuccessful effort in the General Assembly to pass a statewide moratorium on construction or expansion of large-scale livestock operations, is based on little more than hysteria, many in the agriculture industry say.

"This whole Luddite idea that somehow we can go back to some other age just doesn't make sense," said Maryland Farm Bureau President Stephen Weber. "We don't see this in the same light. We think large and small farms have to be economically vital and environmentally sound. I think we need both kinds of farms."

The radio ads focus on family farms, which the Sierra Club says are rapidly being displaced by large corporate operators that have come to dominate some segments of the industry in other states. A second spot outlines what environmentalists call a crisis for dairy farmers, who are receiving the lowest prices for milk in more than two decades.

"Clearly, there is some angst in the farm community about the goals of the Sierra Club," said Russell Brinsfield, who heads the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center. "The notion that farmers just decide to get large is wrong. It's all about economic realities."

Though much of the industry remains skeptical of the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups that have become increasingly vocal on farm issues in recent years, Cecil County dairyman George Donnon, 32, applauds the defense of small farmers.

"I see it as the loss of a whole culture if things don't improve," said the state Farm Bureau's 1997 Young Farmer of the Year. "I started out with nothing, did well, got married and had kids. That's what this life is supposed to be about. It's the only job I've ever had, but we can't keep going like this."

Statisticians with the University of Maryland's agricultural extension service have documented a decades-old trend of fewer farmers and less land in farm production, but they attribute much of the loss to urban sprawl, which drives up land prices. Last year, the state lost 100 farms and 50,000 acres of farmland.

"The trend, especially in the livestock industry, is toward concentration, but I don't think the big corporations are looking at Maryland as a place to expand," said James C. Hanson, an agriculture economist. "[Factory farm] is an inflammatory term that can't really be defined."

Definitions and perceptions might be the most significant element of the farm debate, Hanson said. In North Carolina or the Midwest, unlike Maryland, hog farms of 30,000 animals are not uncommon.

Daniel Shortall, a grain farmer and poultry grower from Centreville who has been active in the state Farm Bureau for years, said the industry is often not certain what environmentalists want.

"My problem is that they present a moving target," Shortall said. "My first thought is `what is a factory farm?' I consider myself a family farmer, and I raise 100,000 chickens. People have to understand that what's good for the environment has to have an economic value."

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