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Farm pollution lawsuit spurs public relations battle

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemElectionsEnvironmental Pollution

With a catch in her throat, Kristin Hudson talks in a video posted online about her young daughter asking if "they" will take away her daddy's farm.

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.

"Although engaging an outside PR partner can have a hefty price tag, corporations have an obligation to take all reasonable steps to manage and control their reputations," she said.

The campaign has drawn fervent support among farmers, particularly on the Shore, where poultry is king. Hundreds turned out for a barbecue fundraiser last month at the Queen Anne's County 4-H park, which Richardson said raised more than $100,000 in donations and pledges.

"If we don't win this battle, they're going to pick us off one at a time," said Jenny Rhodes, a Centreville chicken farmer and agricultural extension agent with the University of Maryland who helped organize the event. Alan and Kristin Hudson came up from Berlin with their two young children to show their appreciation.

Alan Hudson, whose lawyer has declined requests by The Sun to interview him, answered a few questions about the campaign in remarks during the barbecue. He said his legal bills were approaching $300,000 and expressed gratitude for the generosity and support of people he'd never met.

"It's for agriculture in Maryland," he said. "It's not just for me."

Both sides in the lawsuit see it as a test case with national ramifications.

"This is the opening salvo," said Bill Satterfield, Delmarva Poultry's executive director, who contends that if the Waterkeeper Alliance succeeds, it could bring other lawsuits elsewhere. Delmarva Poultry Industry has donated $18,000 to the fund, and its president sits on the legal defense fund's board of trustees.

"We feel that we're under the gun and this particular lawsuit — it could have been anybody," said Patricia Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, which also donated, though she won't say how much. "The Hudsons don't farm any different than any other poultry producer."

Environmental activists counter that the litigation has been miscast by the campaign as a war on family farmers, when in fact it's aiming to get big poultry companies to take legal and financial responsibility for the waste its birds produce.

Though chicken manure is valued by many farmers on the Shore as a relatively low-cost fertilizer, environmentalists say that scientists have identified farm runoff as a leading cause of the bay's water pollution. And there are areas on the peninsula, they point out, that are overloaded with bay-fouling phosphorus from repeated applications of manure.

"This is part of an agricultural industrial complex that's devastating waterways," said Scott Edwards, a lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance who's now with another environmental group, Food and Water Watch in Washington.

Still, Edwards acknowledged that the campaign has been effective at framing the issue for farmers and others – including Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has berated his alma mater, the University of Maryland law school, for pursuing the suit against a farm family.

"It's no less than propaganda," Edwards said of the SaveFarmFamilies.org campaign. "It creates false images, a story that doesn't exist." He maintained that the Waterkeeper group has ample evidence to support its case that the Hudson farm was polluting a ditch that ultimately drains to the Pocomoke River.

The Waterkeeper Alliance and related groups in the case have drawn sizable financial support as well, much of it from a pair of Maryland-based environmental foundations.

Town Creek Foundation, based in Easton, has given $350,000 over the past three years to the alliance's individual waterkeepers in the Chesapeake, with $100,000 of that earmarked for the "Perdue Integrator Liability lawsuit," as environmental groups call the case.

The foundation also gave $170,000 to Edwards' new group, Food & Water Watch, "to support continued litigation to hold large poultry corporations accountable for the pollution generated by their contract farms."

Stuart Clarke, the foundation's executive director, said in an email that Town Creek's donations are in line with its mission "to provide support for nonprofit organizations that are working to protect and restore our natural environment."

The Campbell Foundation, with offices in Annapolis and San Francisco, has gave the Alliance a total of $100,000 over three years for a "revolving litigation fund" and $50,000 in two separate grants to help cover the costs of the lawsuit.

"It fits into our mission of making everyone accountable for their wastes," explained Verna Harrison, the Campbell Foundation's executive director.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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