In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to Whose Democracy Is It?
DocumentWhose Democracy Is It?
DocumentCyber democracy and civic discourse
DocumentThe rise and fall of third parties
DocumentThe best democracy money can buy
DocumentSo you want to be a politician?
DocumentThe business of democracy
DocumentMoney talks at the Capitol
DocumentFacing Immigration Court
DocumentDiscussing Democracy
AudioStanding for something (story audio)
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Standing for something
Larger view
Julie Jansen lives near Olivia, Minn. She became active in politics after a hog farm started business near her home. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
The story of one person fighting for a cause is classic Americana: grassroots democracy at its best. Julie Jansen lived something like that when she took on a large hog company near her central Minnesota home. The year's long fight continues to affect life today in Renville County. But are the days nearly over when ordinary citizens can rise up and change things? Some people worry money and media are squeezing out the individual.

Olivia, Minn. — The story of Julie Jansen is both inspiring and cautionary. She had an impact. But she also paid a price.

"Many a times I went to bed just thinking, 'Why me God, why me?'" says Jansen.

If she felt overwhelmed initially, it's probably not surprising. Ten years ago Jansen wasn't interest in politics.

"I didn't know how many county commissioners we had. I voted once my whole, entire life. It was a rude awakening," Jansen says.

Her transformation began in the mid-1990's. Two hog farms were built about a mile from the Renville County house where she, her husband and their six children lived. Hog waste was stored in outdoor lagoons. Winds swept the manure gases into the Jansen home. At first it was a nuisance. Then it started making the family sick: headaches, nausea and sore throats. On the worst nights they escaped to a motel. Julie Jansen felt county officials were not listening to complaints she and others made about the hog farms. That's when Jansen got interested in the political process.

"When the government hasn't been protective, that's when people get involved. And that's when they say 'Hey! Wait a minute. You were supposed to be protecting me. What happened?'," says Jansen.

Jansen starting speaking at county board meetings in Olivia and at state legislative hearings in St. Paul.

"The first time I testified in committee I wrote my name down. I was so scared, my knees were knocking. I was afraid I would forget my own name," Jansen says.

She had allies in the fight. Jansen and other Renville County residents formed a citizen's lobby. But Jansen was the driving force. Her story of a family's health damaged by hog pollution attracted attention. It even lead to her one run for office. In 1996 current U.S. Senator Mark Dayton choose Jansen as his running mate in an unsuccessful try for governor. But she did more than complain. Jansen researched exactly what gases hog manure contains. And how they affect humans.

"I was on the phone 24/7. My phone bills were a $1000 a month, easy. Ordering all the reports I could. Reading through them with a dictionary, a medical dictionary Putting these reports into English. I was determined," Jansen says.

Eventually she used her credit card to rent a sophisticated air tester.

The meter revealed periodic high level bursts of hydrogen sulfide from the hog lots. Last summer the state health department released its most comprehensive study yet of the hog farm which troubled Jansen's family. The department's Ginny Yingling says the report validates Jansen's claims.

"High levels of hydrogen sulfide and other gases were being emitted. And those levels of hydrogen sulfide represented a health risk," Yingling says.

The information generated by Jansen and others in Renville County helped convince the state to ban outdoor hog lagoons.

Jansen reached a settlement with the hog company. They bought her home and the family moved to another rural location near Olivia. The hog company itself was bought out. To solve the pollution problems, the new owners will replace the outdoor manure lagoons with capped concrete pits.

But the changes don't end the debate.

Larger view
Image Mary Page

Like a wind moving through tall grass, the issue continues to ripple across Renville County. Jansen is both cursed and praised. Mary Page is a past Olivia mayor and county board member. She believes Jansen's work did some long term damage.

"I don't think the average observer would see the tentacles of what happened then and how it is affecting business today at the county level," Page says.

She says farmers and other businesses are scared to invest in big projects which might generate environmental issues. She says that's hurt the area's economy. A citizen activist herself, Page works on rural development issues from her home in Olivia. She says the hog debate also produced a social awkwardness which lingers today.

"Everything that's said about us affects us not just as a city council member or a county commissioner. It affects us when we go to the grocery store, it affects us when we go to church, it affects us when we meet up with somebody at the post office. I mean it's just almost too much," Page says.

The citizen activist also pays a price.

Julie Jansen remembers people crossing the street to avoid her. She says people lied about her past, saying she failed to graduate from high school. One lady verbally attacked her at a girl scout event. Another dug her fingernails into Jansen's arm at a county board meeting. Jansen says she didn't let the incidents scare her off.

"If they can discredit the person, they're going to make them feel bad enough that they're going to run away," says Jansen. "Then the issue's solved. By discrediting someone and making them feel so horrible that they don't want to be involved anymore."

Larger view
Image Paul Heyl

The thick skin Jansen grew was obvious to some of her friends. Bird Island Mayor Paul Heyl says Jansen learned to handle herself in public by concentrating on facts and ignoring personal attacks. He wonders though if the days of citizen activists like Jansen are almost past.

"I think that it's going to become more and more difficult for her, yeah. And people like her," says Heyl.

Besides being mayor, Heyl has long been active in the DFL party. He's seen money and media become more important at all levels of government.

"You have elections that are essentially being decided on who's the most clever with their ads and who has the most money to purchase the most ads," he says. "And so how effective an activist in a specific issue can be, I think, ends up becoming less likely as that whole process becomes more solidified. And it seems to me to be something that's really threatening our democracy."

Heyl says the threat comes as the political process becomes more important than ever. Jansen agrees with that.

"Everything's political," she says. "The safety of your food, where your clothes come from, it's all political. And people just don't understand that they really do have a voice in politics if they choose to use it."

She continues to work on feedlot issues as an organizer for the Clean Water Action Alliance. The work takes her to all parts of the state and sometimes to different parts of the nation. It's a much different life than she planned a decade ago. Since hog feedlots landed in her life she's been yelled at, cheered, threatened and generally forced out of her political innocence. It's been difficult but lead to real change, both in public policy and in her own life.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects