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While it’s become common in recent years to espouse the virtues of small, localized farming, Michael Formica isn’t one of the movement’s evangelists. As Chief Environmental Counsel for the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, D.C., he works at the center of a $15 billion a year industry that employs more than a million people. “I’m ‘Big Bacon,’” he says, with a laugh. When it comes to the bad rap that large-scale farming has taken over the last decade, however, Formica doesn’t kid around.
“There’s this vision of what a farm looks like, but nobody wants to do the work,” he says. “If we had 200 million Americans each with 10 acres it would be an inefficient way for the country to produce food. It would be an inefficient way for the country to operate.”
Size has its place, says Formica, when it comes to contending with environmental issues. Take something like manure. By focusing on nutrition and feed efficiency, the pork industry has made “dramatic” reductions in what it generates, even while the number of animals has essentially remained the same. “Across the board for the pork industry, in every environmental metric, we see pollution decreasing from farms because they have the capital and resources and expertise to make advancements,” he says.
At the heart of Formica’s work is the push and pull of government regulation. He’s in steady contact with cabinet officials, Congress, and federal agencies, most frequently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some days he’s helping to craft legislation, like the agricultural provisions in the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act; other days he’s firing up a response on behalf of the livestock sector to, say, the EPA’s renewable fuel standards.
“[The government] is like a school yard bully, until you bloody them up a few times,” says Formica, who previously worked as the director of Environmental Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “They’re not going to pay you much respect. But when you force it to turn over a check and pay you a lot of money, your clients are really happy and the government starts to listen to you.”
“We’ll bring in these experts from big law firms and I’ll just sit there and scratch my head, thinking, You went to Harvard and you don’t know this?”
It’s a job that requires Formica to boldly, quickly come up to speed on all areas of environmental law. He credits his training at Vermont Law School for his ability to do that. “The school taught me how to critically think and evaluate problems,” he says. “And the base level that I’ve got in any environmental issue is above and beyond anything other practitioners have who I run into. We’ll bring in these experts from big law firms and I’ll just sit there and scratch my head, thinking, You went to Harvard and you don’t know this?”