Concentrated fumes from a neighboring farm made Eric and Lisa Stickdorn so ill they had to leave their home and take up residence in a church basement. In a story that won the 2009-10 award for best environmental coverage from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Dan Ferber tells the Stickdorns’ story, using it as a lens to investigate the environmental and health hazards of confined feeding operations, industrial-scale farms that raise a large number of livestock on very little land. “Downwind of the Big Dairy Farm” appeared in Nuvo Newsweekly on September 17, 2009. Here, in our inaugural piece at The Open Notebook, Ferber tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Where did you get the idea for this story?
The credit for this story goes to my editor [at the Indianapolis alternative paper, NUVO Newsweekly], Jim Poyser. We had been talking about environmental stories, and for several years, he had been looking for a new way of covering confinement farms, which are big in Indiana and are fairly unregulated. He had heard about this guy, Eric Stickdorn, and his family’s fight to stay on their land. Stickdorn had been getting some legal action going and was finally ready to talk about it. Jim called me and said, “Hey, there’s a great narrative opportunity here.”
What attracted you to this story?
I once heard someone say that the definition of a good story is: “Main character falls into a hole and struggles to get out.” Here, the story was clearly the Stickdorns. They had this great life before this confinement operation started next door to them, and then they got sick and had to leave. They want to be back on their land, but it makes them sick to be there. I thought the story had to start with what life was like beforehand, then what happened, then this process they went through to try to get out of the hole. They were good characters because they bust some stereotypes about what rural people are like, and they were also open and ready to talk.
I also knew that these confinement operations were a big issue in the state, and had heard that as far as environmental regulation goes, Indiana is the pits. The coverage hadn’t been all that inspiring anywhere in the state; if the Indy Star had done some exposé of the story, I wouldn’t have been as interested.
Finally, even though it’s a local story, I knew it would have several potential spin-off stories that could work nationally.
How did the reporting unfold?
The first person I called was Eric Stickdorn, we had a number of phone conversations and email exchanges, during which I learned his story. Then I talked with people from two different local environmental groups. I also started to call national groups, then some of the other farmers around the state. When I was working on this story, the Pew Environment Group had a rally downtown [in Indianapolis] to deal with the problem of confined feeding operations. That was really fortuitous because it was nearby, and I got to meet some farmers from other parts of the state who were in this grass-roots activist group.
Then I wanted to nail down the science. My biggest concern early on was that it’s easy to latch onto a narrative as you understand it, and the facts may not adhere to that. Sometimes stories are too good to be true—“too good to check out.” This had the potential to be one of those stories, so I wanted to make sure the science was on solid ground—I don’t want to be walking into any quicksand. I talked to a bunch of scientists who aren’t connected with any of these groups and read key papers. I also talked to a physician who knew the Stickdorns and their symptoms and knew the environmental issues. Everything Stickdorn said about the dangers of hydrogen sulfide air pollution from livestock operations checked out.
I also wanted to check out what I’d heard about Indiana being pretty lame when it comes to regulation of agriculture. I wanted to learn both how Indiana regulated these operations and how they could regulate them—what pollution laws other states had in place, what the environmental groups were calling for, and what industry groups wanted.
Once I knew the science and policy angles were going to be solid, I put off doing some of the reporting on that until later, and focused on getting the narrative first. I needed to know that I had a story, and access was the most important element.
How much time did you spend with the Stickdorns?
I talked with Eric Stickdorn a bunch of times, and I spent an afternoon at the Stickdorns’ farm—even though they have to live somewhere else, they come back every day to tend to the farm.
Eric was much more comfortable talking to reporters than Lisa was, and at first it looked like I wouldn’t get to talk with her. I made sure to tell Eric that whatever she was comfortable with was fine with me, but I also told him that I really wanted to have her side of the story. I just tried to be really gentle and patient. Eventually I did get to sit down with them as a couple. Eric and I had been walking around outside, and then a neighbor dropped by and we all started talking. Lisa got more comfortable with me, and we ended up sitting down at their kitchen table to talk. I’m glad we did, because I think having her voice in the story made a difference.
Besides talking with the Stickdorns, how did you verify what had happened to them?
First of all, Eric Stickdorn sent me about three dozen photos of the stream on his property running brown with manure. I also talked to a neighbor who witnessed it. I talked with the Amish neighbors—both the one who had owned the offending farm at first, and the one who later bought it. And finally, the Stickdorns’ lawyer gave me the legal documents on their unsuccessful zoning appeals, as well as some letters from her to the neighbors’ lawyer, which were very useful because you know that the lawyer is not making things up; the facts had to check out, and they did.
How much time did you spend on the story?
This story came together really smoothly, which does not always happen for me. I reported it in about a week and a half and wrote it in about five or six days. I think what made it fall into place so quickly was that I was pretty gung-ho about the story and I had a clear idea of what the narrative was. But early on, I knew that I didn’t want it to just be about the Stickdorns, but also about why there are so many operations like these in Indiana, and why so many people are complaining about them. I think of microcosm and macrocosm when I do stories like this—the microcosm being the individual’s narrative, and the macrocosm being the larger policy context. I wanted both to be narratives. Where they intersect is how the Stickdorns bump up against state policy and the legal system.
A glimpse behind the scenes: