Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Preserving Our Rural Heritage,” was written by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for the Spring 2002 edition of Rootstock.

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In the struggle to clean up our local waterways, it is essential that Americans can still find networks of family farmers, like Organic Valley, who understood that a clean environment, stable family farms and vigorous rural economies are intertwined with America’s most important national values including the promotion of communities that foster democracy and human dignity. Organic Valley farmers use only natural feeds, without steroids, subtherapeutic antibiotics or other artificial growth promotants and treat their animals with dignity and respect. This commitment to organic farming is also a commitment to clean air and water and to healthy communities. The farmers at Organic Valley bring tasty, premium-quality meat to customers while practicing the highest standards of husbandry and environmental stewardship. That is why Waterkeeper Alliance and Organic Valley have pledged to work together in promoting our mutual goals of clean water and organic farming. This union between the 420 farmers who are part of the Organic Valley cooperative and the over 80 Waterkeeper programs throughout the United States is an important step in restoring America’s waterways by protecting our rural heritage.

Sustainable meat not only protects our health and our water, it tastes better. Factory pork and poultry in our supermarket is unsavory, soft and bland. Americans have forgotten that they are not supposed to be able to cut chicken with a fork. The availability of Organic Valley’s organic meat products enables the public to vote with their dollars for organic family farmers across America.

One of the foremost leaders in the organic movement, Organic Valley also provides citizens with a full array of other foods to feed their families —- all of which directly support 420 organic family farmers in 15 states from California to Maine. These farm families produce delicious, high quality, strictly certified organic foods, including milk, award-winning cheeses, butter, spreads, creams, eggs, produce and juice.

Waterkeeper Alliance

Photo credit: Waterkeeper Alliance

American meat and dairy production is currently undergoing the most dramatic consolidation in our history. Family farmers are disappearing and ceding control of the American landscapes and food production to industrial meat factories owned by a handful of giant corporations with little interest in or capacity for sustainable agriculture. Industrial meat production is polluting North America’s rivers, destroying commercial fisheries, devaluing property, shattering rural communities, poisoning soils, air and groundwater, putting thousands of farmers out of business, sickening thousands of American citizens, killing billions of fish, and subjecting millions of farm animals to unspeakable and unnecessary cruelty.

North Carolina’s hogs now outnumber its citizens and produce more fecal waste than all of the people in North Carolina, New York and California combined. Some industrial pork farms produce as much sewage as America’s largest cities. But while human waste must be treated, hog waste, similarly fetid and virulent, is simply dumped into the environment. Stadium-size warehouses shoehorn thousands of sows into claustrophobic cages that hold them in one position for a lifetime over metal-grate floors. Below, aluminum culverts collect and channel their putrefying waste into 10-acre, open-air pits three stories deep from which miasmal vapors choke surrounding communities and tens of millions of gallons of hog feces ooze into North Carolina’s rivers. The drugs and hormones needed to keep confined animals alive and growing are mainly excreted with the wastes and now saturate local waterways. Such discharges foster the growth of the drug-resistant superbugs and threaten the disruption of human and animal endocrines.

Billionaire chicken barons and billionaire hog tycoons have used their corporate power to drive a million family farmers out of business, including virtually every independent egg-and-broiler farmer in America. Each corporate farm puts 10 family farmers out of business. The process of vertical integration has put the final nail in the coffin of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a democracy rooted in family-owned freeholds. Industrial meat moguls site their stinking farms in the poorest communities and pay slave wages to their miniscule work force for performing one of the most dangerous and unhealthy jobs in America. The industry’s business plan is based upon its ability to use its political clout to paralyze the regulatory agencies, thereby escaping the costs of complying with environmental laws.

Organic Valley reminds us that it is not just industrial meat production that is destroying the environment. Conventional agricultural methods used in dairy-farming and in the production of non-organic crops are also often destructive to our waters. Every farm converted to organic is a step towards health and dignity for our food supply, our people and our planet.

Waterkeeper Alliance

Photo credit: Waterkeeper Alliance

This is a struggle of good against evil-between the purveyors of short-term greed and ignorance who would bring us quickly to Armageddon and those who believe in a long-term vision of communities that are dignified and enriching and that meet are obligations to future generations. There are two visions of America. One is that this is just a place where you can make a pile for yourself and keep moving. And the other is that you put down roots and build communities that are examples to the rest of humanity.

Waterkeeper Alliance has assembled a coalition of environmentalists, family farm activists and animal welfare advocates to fight the corporate meat factories. On December 6, 2000, the Alliance and our partners announced that we have recruited an all-star team of attorneys to launch a broad legal assault against the corporate hog industry. The coalition is currently working with prominent plaintiffs lawyers to reform the industry, restore damaged ecosystems, and reinvigorate America’s family farms. We were forced to take on this fight because the government has failed to prosecute hog industry practices that shatter rural communities and contaminate public waterways. Waterkeeper Alliance has already initiated the first series of lawsuits in North Carolina and a half of dozen other states and is hosting its second national Sustainable Hog Farming Summit in Iowa in Spring 2002 to support the effort.

Waterkeeper Alliance is the umbrella organization for over 80 Waterkeeper programs located throughout North and Central America and Europe. The Waterkeeper movement is an environmental “neighborhood watch” program, a citizen’s patrol to protect communities and the waters on which they depend. The Waterkeeper philosophy is rooted on the notion that the protection and enjoyment of a community’s natural resources requires the daily vigilance of its citizens.

The Waterkeeper concept started on New York’s Hudson River where a coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen mobilized in 1966 to reclaim the Hudson from its polluters. They constructed a boat to patrol the river and used the winnings from anti-pollution lawsuits to hire the first full-time Riverkeeper in 1983. Over the years, Riverkeeper has evolved into an independent, member-supported organization that continues to prove itself as the premier guardian of the Hudson River, its tributaries and its watershed lands.

This partnership between Waterkeeper Alliance and Organic Valley is a logical union of two strong and like-minded communities that are quickly entering the national spotlight. We understand that if we want clean water and dignified enriching communities, we are going to have to fight for them. We are going to patrol our waterways. We are going to defend rural communities. And we are going to work together to protect our nation’s soul.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is the founder and current chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance. He is a Clinical Professor of Enviornmntal Law and co-director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University School of Law. He also serves as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defence Council. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia Law School and received a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law from Pace University.