One Michigan county tells the story of a nation plagued by water pollution


Farming: Industry or family business?

Matt Cary is a third-generation farmer at Cary Pioneer Farms, which started out as a small farm. Over the generations, the family acquired more land, transforming the farm into a large-scale operation, growing crops on 4,100 acres and raising over 2,000 cattle every year, earning it CAFO status. 

Cary, who now runs the business alongside his father and his brother, owes the majority of his success to his grandfather, who started the farm in 1944 and was what Cary described as nothing short of a “visionary” who was ahead of the curve on more recent sustainability measures like soil testing and spot application of manure.

Farming is in the family’s blood, said Cary, who has worked on the farm since he was 16. “I couldn’t imagine any other way of life,” he said, concluding that at the end of the day, they’re just “a large family farm.” 

This echoes the Farm Bureau’s stance. “Permitted livestock are not huge soulless corporate industries,” Campbell wrote in an email. “Our permitted farms are family-owned businesses just like smaller farms.” 

Keeton disagrees. “The regulations that these feedlots have to deal with are very different than what most industries have to deal with,” he said, adding that any farm with thousands of animals on it is “an industry and it needs to be treated as such.”

Regulations for CAFOs in Michigan are different than those for smaller farms. The permit for CAFOs includes rules on when a farmer is allowed to apply manure and fertilizer on frozen ground and how much manure and fertilizer is allowed to be applied on farm fields at all. 

The newest permit, revised this year, bans application on frozen ground and considerably limits application on fields. It is currently being contested by groups like the Michigan Farm Bureau. They, along with six other agricultural advocacy groups and more than 160 farms, submitted a petition in late May of this year, arguing that the regulations overstep EGLE’s regulatory authority. Until a decision on the newest permit is reached, regulations from 2015 will still be in effect.

Campbell said the Michigan Farm Bureau feels that the permit’s requirements are, at the very least, hardly backed by science and that the costs of keeping up with the new standards could put some farms out of business entirely.

Cary shared the Farm Bureau’s concerns. “I’ll be the first to tell you, some regulation is not a bad thing, because there’s people out there that need that push a little more than others,” he said. But when such strict regulations are imposed, it leaves farmers little time to prepare for change, he said.

Cary said he’s worried about what the future of farming will look like, but he’s worried about the environment too. “It’s really important for us to be running our operation for the future of our kids and for our community,” he said. “But we’re just like anybody else. We’re trying to raise a family, and we drink all the same water.” 

Bruce Washburn, an environmental quality specialist from EGLE’s Water Resources Division, told Circle of Blue that the regulations are intended to minimize pollution in waterways like the Saginaw Bay, into which the Pine River eventually flows.

Borrello and other environmental groups argue that the permit doesn’t go far enough to protect Michigan’s waterways. However, neither he nor Keeton blames the farmers. “It’s our conviction that regulations are the problem,” Keeton said. 

Borrello does not anticipate that lawmakers – of any party – will take action to reduce farm pollution. “I have no confidence that anybody, Democrat, Republican, Independent, the governor, the attorney general,” he said, “has any desire whatsoever to do anything positive related to protecting our waters from agricultural impact.” 

The role of CAFOs in the national food system is even being called into question. At the end of 2019, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Farm System Reform Act, which would eliminate CAFOs entirely by 2040. The bill gained support from Democratic colleagues Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but it has not moved out of committee. 

What little faith he does have left, Borrello puts in the next generation. “The only hope I have is that the young people will start voting and start asking questions that specifically say, ‘If we vote for you, will you change how agriculture is regulated?’”

Farms that started out small, like the Carys’, “want to be good stewards,” Borrello said. “I think they are doing everything to the letter of the law. And the law just doesn’t protect the environment.” 

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