Linn Area Reads focuses on "factory farms"

Discussion planned for Saturday at Marion Public Library

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MARION — Nicolette Hahn Niman has seen, and smelled, her share of hog confinement operations.

The environmental advocate and author wasn’t surprised that the Iowa Legislature passed the so-called "ag gag" bill, which makes it a crime to take a farm job under false pretenses. The law goes into effect July 1, despite the objections of animal rights activists who could be prosecuted for videotaping alleged animal abuse on Iowa farms.

"We see these laws introduced because there’s a lot of nervousness," Hahn Niman said. "They’re trying to protect the current system."

Hog confinement facilities and other types of farming are part of the dialogue surrounding this year’s Linn Area Reads, an annual program that encourages residents of Linn County to read and discuss the same book.

Hahn Niman, 44, of Bolinas, Calif., was quickly immersed in the world of "factory farms" as senior attorney for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s environmental group, Waterkeeper.

She offers an account of industrial farming in her book, "Righteous Porkchop," along with alternatives for sustainable livestock farming.

Linn Area Reads committee members said they selected the book because of its broad appeal and issues relevant to the community.

Hahn Niman said she was honored to have her book chosen for the program.

"To me, the series of community discussions is the most exciting part about this," she said in a telephone interview from her ranch in California.

One of those discussions takes place at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Marion Public Library.

"Beyond Factory Farms" features speakers Jason Grimm, food system planner for Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development; Elizabeth Burns-Thompson of Alburnett, a Drake Law School student focusing on agricultural law; and Jason Russell, a Prairieburg hog farmer and speaker with the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Russell, 32, said he isn’t worried about the audience having an environmental bent.

He views the term "factory farm" as derogatory and has seen both traditional farm operations in his youth, and the current system, where he raises about 30,000 pigs annually in two confinement buildings in northeast Linn County.

"As someone who has experienced both, I’d never go back," Russell said.

The modern farming system is easier on the animals and the farmers, who aren’t exposed to the extreme cold or heat of Iowa, he said.

"The pigs do a lot better in here because they have an unstressful life," Russell said. "They’re clean; there’s less incidence of disease."

Liquid manure is injected into fields as fertilizer, making the operation sustainable. he said.

The depiction is far different in "Righteous Porkchop," in which Hahn Niman calls into question environmental problems and other issues of confined animal feeding operations.

A vegetarian who married California ranch owner Bill Niman, Hahn Niman said any criticism she has received about the book comes from vegans opposed to raising animals for food.

Overall, she is encouraged by the direction the country is moving with its focus on safe food, including Iowa, where she has visited numerous times.

"I think it’s an unstoppable force," she said of the sustainable foods movement. "As I travel around the country, I see it everywhere I go."

Linn Area Reads Events

— "Beyond Factory Farms," a panel discussion hosted by The Gazette, is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Marion Public Library, 1095 Sixth Ave., Marion.

— A Farm to Market vendor fair will be 1-5 p.m. April 22 at Westdale Mall, 2600 Edgewood Rd. NE, to help people learn more about local food production.

— Meet the Author, Nicolette Hahn Niman, will be 7 p.m. May 11 at The Hotel at Kirkwood.

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