A Tribute to Elsie Herring

Elsie Herring was a friend! We weren’t close personal friends but professional friends who shared a sense of mutual respect and common commitment. We were fellow soldiers in what I refer to as the “CAFO war.” Her part in that war has come to an end. Elsie Herring died in early May—from cancer. There is little doubt that her life was cut short by living with and fighting back against CAFOs. In the early 1990s, Elsie returned to the multigenerational family farm where she had grown up to take care of her aging mother. She discovered that a nearby hog farm had started spraying liquid manure on a field next to her mother’s house—sometimes close enough to splatter visible particles of fecal matter on the siding. Thus, began her nearly 30-year battle against CAFOs.


The nearby hog operation was a large confinement animal feeding operation or CAFO. She was deeply concerned by this discovery, not only because of the unbearable stench but also because of the risk to her and her mother’s physical health. “What gives a human being the right to blow animal waste on other human beings?” she asked. She continued asking and answering that question for as long as she lived. There isn’t anything that gives a human being the right to pursue their economic self-interest by means that threaten the health and well-being of other human beings. CAFOs are inherently ethically and morally wrong and should be legally banned and abandoned.

There was little scientific evidence in the early days to support our common-sense concerns about the negative impacts of CAFOs on human health. The agricultural colleges of state Land Grant Universities weren’t interested in research that might challenge the legitimacy of industrial agriculture in general and certainly not CAFOs in particular. But over the years, the scientific evidence provided by highly respected research and public health institutions has continued to mount. Those institutions include the medical schools of the University of North Carolina and the University of Iowa and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; the American Public Health Association, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and even the United Nations.


Like many of us in the CAFO war, Elsie Herring lost more battles than she won, but she kept on fighting—and, she helped win a few big ones. Elsie was part of the group in North Carolina that won the big lawsuit against Smithfield Food, the largest pig and pork producer in the world. She reportedly felt vindicated by the verdict of an impartial jury, which was later upheld on appeal. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to read a new study published by the National Academy of Science that confirmed her health concerns about living near a CAFO. The study concluded that U.S. agricultural production results in 17,900 air quality-related deaths per year. Nearly 40% or 7,000 of these agricultural-related deaths were likely due to airborne contaminants from large-scale animal feeding operations. https://www.pnas.org/content/118/20/e2013637118 We are still losing more battles than we are winning but with mounting evidence and growing public awareness, we are slowly winning the war.


I honestly can’t remember when I first met Elsie Herring, but it was probably at the Factory Farm Summit in New Bern North Carolina in 2001. Over the years, we would see each other at various CAFO-related events, exchange a few pleasantries, and encourage each other to keep up the good work. Elsie was a quiet but firm and compelling voice of common sense at these events. She was an advocate for farmers and even for animal agriculture but a fierce and effective opponent of CAFOs.


In the CAFO documentary, Right to Harm, Elsie pleads with North Carolina state legislators to find and support a system of production that is profitable for hog farmers and well as respectful of their neighbors—as all farming should be. The legislators’ responses were disgustingly disrespectful. They treated her as “an ignorant old black woman” who had no right to even have an opinion about farming. Elise Herring was black and she may have been getting old, but she certainly was not ignorant. She probably knew more about CAFOs than anyone in the North Carolina legislature. Unfortunately, this is typically the case in public hearings. Critics must be prepared to defend themselves with “sound science,” while pro-CAFO talking points developed by corporate PR firms are accepted as facts.


One North Carolina legislator proclaimed loudly, “To farmers, hog manure smells like money.” It’s true, hogs were once known as “mortgage lifters.” Many small diversified family farms, like the one I grew up on, raised a few hogs as a source of money. The sows farrowed in the spring and the pigs were ready to sell in the fall to make mortgage payments on the farms. But those hogs were raised outside on pastures. Their manure broke down under aerobic conditions, which is very different from the anaerobic conditions in manure pits under CAFO confinements. Manure from CAFOs doesn’t smell like money, it smells like “death.”


Else Herring is gone, but the CAFO battles will continue. Perhaps, I also will be gone before the CAFO war is won, but ultimately it will be won. CAFOs are not only ethically and morally wrong, they are simply not sustainable—environmentally, socially, or even economically. The challenge is to minimize the interim degradation and death. Regardless, whatever and wherever heaven may be, I am confident that Elsie Herring is no longer enduring the toxic stench of a CAFO.


John Ikerd