Farm pollution lawsuit spurs public relations battle
Poultry industry, environmental groups fund lawyers for national bellwether
Alan Hudson talks to the crowd surrounded by his children, Ethan, 5, and Sawyer, 8, and wife, Kristin. Far right is Jenny Rhodes, Farm Bureau board, vice president of Delmarva Poultry Industry and an extention educator. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / February 18, 2012)
The video, featured on SaveFarmFamilies.org rallied farmers and others across the country to the side of an Eastern Shore farm couple fighting an environmental group's lawsuit alleging that the farm polluted a Chesapeake Bay tributary.
The Web-based organization has raised more than $200,000 to date from Perdue Farms, agricultural groups and other farmers to help Alan and Kristin Hudson pay legal bills in the 2-year-old case, according to one of the group's leaders. Meanwhile, two Maryland foundations with environmental agendas have poured a comparable amount into supporting the suit filed by the Waterkeepers Alliance.
What began as a grass-roots effort by some Shore farmers to help one of their own has morphed over the past year into a sophisticated fundraising and public-relations campaign that portrays the lawsuit as a David-vs.-Goliath struggle between a fourth-generation farm family and a well-heeled New York environmental group bent on crushing what it calls "factory farming."
"The idea was to make sure [the lawsuit] didn't bankrupt the farm before they could defend themselves," said Lee W. Richardson, a chicken farmer from Willards and one of the group's leaders. "Everybody feels like it could have been them."
The lawsuit, filed in March 2010, is on hold for now, following a federal judge's order earlier this month directing the two sides to try to reach a settlement. They're scheduled to do that before a U.S. magistrate on March 28.
What's not clear on SaveFarmFamilies.org is the extent to which Perdue Farms, the Salisbury-based poultry company for whom the Hudsons raise birds, has underwritten the campaign.
One of the nation's largest chicken producers, Perdue is also a defendant in the federal lawsuit brought by the Waterkeeper Alliance, a loose international coalition of river and bay watchdogs with 16 member organizations in Maryland.
The New York-based alliance argues that Perdue shares responsibility with the Hudsons for manure from their chicken houses that allegedly washed off the farm, because the company owns the Cornish game hens raised there. Perdue has argued in court filings that the company's not responsible if any pollution did occur because the farmers are independent contractors.
Julie DeYoung, Perdue's spokeswoman, acknowledged that the company paid to set up the Maryland Family Farmers Legal Defense Fund last year and to create and maintain the SaveFarmFamilies.org website. The company has donated $70,000 to help pay the Hudsons' lawyers' bills, she wrote in an email.
Perdue has also enlisted the services of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington public-relations firm. DeYoung declined to say what Perdue is paying Levick. She said that Perdue's communications staff has provided in-kind help as well for the SaveFarmFamilies.org campaign.
"Levick works on a multitude of issues for us, and Save Farm Families is just one part," she said.
Perdue decided to underwrite the campaign because company officials were concerned that the Hudsons might feel forced to settle the lawsuit because of their mounting legal bills, DeYoung said.
The Perdue spokeswoman said the company has been "very upfront" about its involvement with SaveFarmFamilies.org. The company was identified in the group's first news release in September as one of the campaign's three sponsoring organizations, she said, along with the Wicomico Young Farmers and Ranchers and the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Perdue's logo also appears on the SaveFarmFamilies.org home page, DeYoung pointed out, in a scroll-down list of 25 supporting organizations, that also includes Mountaire Farms, a poultry company based in Millsboro, Del.
Lee Richardson, one of the fundraising effort's trustees, said that all the money donated to the group goes to pay the Hudsons' lawyers and none is spent on fundraising or public relations.
To experts in public relations, it's no surprise that Perdue's communications firm has drawn a tight publicity bead on the young fourth-generation farmer from Berlin.
"I think there's a reason why Perdue is not the voice in front here," said Kimberly H. Greer, founder and managing principal of FinePoint Communications in Washington, and an instructor in Georgetown University's graduate public-relations program. "You're going to feel more empathy for the individuals than the big corporation."
Perdue is just doing what many other corporations have done when confronted with potentially damaging public outcry or litigation, Greer said.