Guest Column: Western mega-dairy model’s dangers

By Pete Hardin
Editor & Publisher, The Milkweed

Editor’s note: This paper is honored to print Mr. Hardin’s talk prepared for presentation at “When a Mega Dairy Comes In,” Rockford, Ill., hosted by HOMES (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards), March 28-30, 2011, at Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center. Our readers may be familiar with HOMES from their past columns and pictures fighting against a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Jo Daviess County.

Along with HOMES, I have serious environmental concerns about CAFOs, particularly with Wisconsin’s new permitting process and water quality in the Rock River watershed. Our readers might also remember a column by Tom Boswell in our March 9-15, 2011, issue, expressing concerns about an impending factory farm in eastern Rock County, affecting Turtle Creek, a very high-quality tributary to the Rock River.

Please educate yourself on these dangerous CAFOs. Hardin’s new spaper, The Milkweed, is a legend in dairy advocacy journalism not to be missed. Go to and get your subscription today. Not only do I recommend Dr. Ikerd’s book Crisis & Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, I also recommend two other books on CAFOs, David Kirby’s Animal Factory and Editor Daniel Imhoff’s CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.—F.S.

About 30 years ago, Gail Sheehey authored, Mega-Trends, a book detailing future events that would change our lives. Food producers and consumers are watching several “Food Mega-Trends” evolve. For several months, in my publication, I have warned that the world faces serious food shortages. But the specter of global food shortages doesn’t play well with our political leaders. Why bother citizens with another big worry?

“Food Mega-Trends” include: a serious global shortage of grain. Adverse weather has hammered most wheat-producing regions of the world. Wheat problems have drawn more corn into uses normally ascribed to wheat. We cannot fail to give credit to U.S. policies that subsidize 40 percent of our corn crop that’s processed into ethanol.

Globally, there’s a critical shortage of human-quality protein. If I may diverge for a moment, complete protein or proteins must be in the human diet daily, for proper brain and muscle function.

The global shortage of human-quality proteins has foreign buyers sweeping the U.S., buying up our stocks of cheese and nonfat dry milk. Unprecedented events are becoming commonplace: such as a cheese plant in the Southwest telling producers that the next two years of cheese output are committed to export buyers.

Butter is so short that, using early March data from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, there’s only butter in storage in the U.S. equal to three pats of butter per person in the U.S. The oceans are to a great degree fished out. The U.S. beef cattle herd is at its lowest numbers in more than 50 years.

In nearly 40 years as an agricultural journalist, I have never seen such a scary mess, in terms of the adequacy of global food needs. Please don’t leave with the impression that I’m against expanding milk production to meet growing domestic and global needs.

Let’s add another “Food Mega-Trend” to the stewpot of issues: regional shifts in food production. Geographically, U.S. food production and distribution are dangerously tilted west. About 30 percent of the total dollar value of U.S. agricultural crops is produced in California’s Central Valley—an arid lakebed about 80 miles wide and nearly 400 miles long.

That concentrated source of so much of our nation’s food supply—including dairy—is farmed almost exclusively using intense irrigation from groundwater and snowmelt.

Over time, intense irrigation builds up salinity in the soil, which will render that soil infertile for growing many crops. It’s simply illogical to rely upon so much of our nation’s food supply to come from California’s Central Valley … and, more generally, the arid west—2,000 to 3,000 miles from many of the nation’s consumers. What happens to our distant food supplies if there is a global energy crisis that restricts diesel fuel supplies?

California is the nation’s No. 1 milk-producing state, surpassing Wisconsin more than a decade ago. California’s dairy industry relies heavily on irrigated alfalfa and grain imported 1,500-2,000 miles from Midwest and Plains states.

Transportation costs alone equal roughly $1 per bushel to move grain from the Midwest and Plains to the dairy farm in California. High grain prices spell economic chaos for many California dairy ranches. Right now, dairy farmers in California’s Central Valley are paying spot prices of roughly $275-300 per ton for corn delivered to their farm and $300 or more per ton for dairy-quality alfalfa.

The so-called “California” dairy model has been championed over the past 25 years as the model of milk-making efficiency that was going to drive traditional dairy states such as Wisconsin and New York into oblivion.

The “California model”—mega-dairies buying most of their feed inputs (grain, forage), concentrating thousands of milk cows in a single site, relying on low-cost Hispanic labor and jet-setting owners—is bigger than California. Let’s call it the “industrial Western dairy farm model”—a model that has more problems than high grain and alfalfa costs.

California strictly regulates dairies’ impact on air and water quality. Airborne dust, ammonia and volatile organic compounds from the urine—all are carefully monitored. Specifically, California environmental regulators have almost completely banned methane digesters because of their side-generation of noxious compounds—gaseous nitrogen/oxygen compounds. In contrast, former Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle was in love with methane digesters; we’ve built a couple dozen, with more on the way!

The “Food Mega-Trend” before us, here in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin: the physical relocation of western agricultural assets—dairy heifers and money.

The rationale behind western mega-dairy operators’ plans to relocate to the Midwest and Plains: This region is closer to grain supplies, offers more markets and better prices, lies closer to consumers … our water comes down for free, and environmental oversight of air and water quality is lax.

During the Doyle administration, Wisconsin opened the door wide for milk production growth. Wisconsin adorned its “Welcome Wagon” with deals to good too ignore. The logic was to “grow the state’s milk supply.” The “fertilizer” used to grow that milk supply is a set of incredibly liberal tax credits encouraging dairy farms’ expansion and modernization.

Over the past several years, I’ve repeatedly heard comments that Wisconsin’s set of investment tax credits to modernize and expand dairy farms was too good a deal not to take advantage of. In Madison, however, recent years’ growth of Wisconsin’s milk supply has become the single measure of success … without regard to the profitability of our existing, multi-generation family dairy farms.

In tandem with these investment tax credits, Wisconsin’s “Dairy Welcome Wagon” sweetened the “hospitality” for attracting out-of-state mega-dairy money. That “sweetener” is in fact a bitter pill: removal of local control in locating mega-dairies. About six or seven years ago, with virtually no notice and little public debate:

Wisconsin’s legislators rammed through new rules that specifically removed any siting or zoning authority from elected township and county officials regarding the imposition of proposed mega-dairies. So now, Scott Walker tells us, “Wisconsin is open for business.”

For mega-dairies, the Walker administration proposes streamlining DNR’s approval process for proposed mega-dairies to a rubber-stamp, cookie-cutter ruse. Currently, there are about four to five dozen applications for new CAFOs or expanded CAFO dairy operations before this Wisconsin DNR

Does the Upper Midwest need the extra milk that would be produced by four to five dozen big dairies? Maybe. Let’s say: 50 new or expanded dairies add averaging 2,000 cows each—totaling about 2.2 billion pounds of milk per year. Can Wisconsin dairy plants handle another 6 million pounds of milk per day? Maybe … but at what cost?

The big dairies in the West always want a special deal, better than the average dairy farmer receives in payment for milk. Take A. J. Bos, who wants to build a mega-dairy in Jo Daviess County that has generated so much controversy. Several years ago, in California, Bos’ dairy near Bakersfield received a premium for his mega-dairy’s milk from Land O’Lakes in California.

As a non-member of that co-op, he received more money for his milk than was paid to LOL members. And finally, when that contract expired, the local Land O’Lakes producers demanded that the co-op discontinue that deal.

So Bos then sold his milk to a fluid processor in Nevada—at a premium, no doubt. In turn, that fluid milk processor in Nevada dumped about a dozen or a dozen and a half Nevada producers out of their markets. And those producers were forced to sell their milk to a milk powder plant in California, at a far lower net price than their local market had paid.

Small wonder why some dairy producers in California and Nevada joke about the irony of A. J. Bos’ last name being “S.O.B. spelled backwards.” Many citizens of Jo Daviess County concur.

Will the same type of events occur here in Wisconsin—big-volume premiums for mega-dairies, big producers’ milk displacing the milk from small and medium-sized farms? Absolutely. It’s happening right now. Foremost Farms, as one example, is offering top-shelf volume premiums in the $2 per 100-weight range.

In my opinion, the biggest concerns as the Upper Midwest faces the onslaught of mega-dairies should be air quality and water quality. We cannot take for granted our blessings of clean water and air. Manure handling is one of the modern U.S. dairy industry’s biggest scandals.

Each day, dairy cows generate more poop and pee—per pound—than milk. (Pardon the unscientific terms.) Manure and urine from thousands of cows, concentrated in one location—constitute an environmental problem waiting to happen: ultimately millions of gallons of stored waste. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is how those wastes are handled. Commonly, big dairies store their livestock wastes under water, in anaerobic (oxygen-limited) environments.

Lacking oxygen, manure’s decomposition yields great quantities of methane—an incredibly harmful greenhouse gas. Many dairies put their manure in lagoons or holding ponds—storing wastes under water until those wastes are land-spread.

Even when the methane is first generated and then burned to produce electricity, the resulting compounds include more and more carbon dioxide—another greenhouse gas. Methane generators—in their combustion of methane—also produce quantities of nitrogen/oxygen gases. Because of the environmental harm of those nitrogen/oxygen gas compounds, California has shut down operation of all but one methane digester in that state.

For the proposed Tuls mega-dairy in eastern Rock County, there’s an apparent novel proposal for liquid waste spreading … a powerful “aerial gun” to spray liquid animal wastes: let’s call it “The Ginormous Pee-Shooter.” (That’s spelled P-E-E.)

Particularly in warm weather, one must question whether this mega-Pee Shooter will simply aerate the organic and ammonia compounds and add to air quality problems. Neighbors should learn where such contraptions are already in operation, and what measures of air quality and neighbors’ satisfaction there may be.

Earlier, I noted that a tremendous shift of food production resources is taking place, and will take place, from the arid west to the more water-blessed regions such as the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast. Here we are. Here they come.

What’s in society’s overall, longer-term best interests? To feed the nation and the world while degrading our local air and water quality?

Politics? Wisconsin governor Walker proposes less oversight on CAFOs by expediting state permitting. In Washington, D.C., the House Republicans’ recently-proposed federal budget would remove funding for air quality enforcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The array of vested interests lined up to dot our Upper Midwest landscape with mega-dairies is no doubt astounding, if we only knew how powerful the array of those interests is. It’s all part of the industrialization of milk production, leading dairy down the same mistaken path that’s degraded many pork and poultry producers.

What do we know? We know about the mega-dairy at Boardman, Ore., in which A. J. Bos was at one time listed as the third-largest source of ammonia pollution in the nation. Sources in the Pacific Northwest have told my friends from Jo Daviess County that under the right wind and climate conditions, air pollution from the Boardman, Ore. dairy could be smelled 100 miles away! In December 2008, as a going-away present to his friends, the George W. Bush administration removed federal monitoring and reporting of ammonia pollution. Mega-dairies, both within states and federally, need more environmental oversight, not less.

Connect the dots. Many of these actions are not occurring in an unplanned, random sequence. Rather … the series of events finds politicians and government regulators – in Madison, Wis., in Springfield, Ill., and in Washington, D.C.—turning their backs on legitimate concerns about air and water quality in order to welcome mega-dairies to a township near you.

In conclusion, I suggest the following:

* Don’t buy the hype that vested interests are throwing around, ask a million questions and dig for your own answers. For example: Where else is a mega-PEE SHOOTER being used, and what monitors exist for air pollution, particularly in warm weather? What do the neighbors think?

* Support the elected officials and citizens of Magnolia Township, south of Evansville, Wis., in their Wisconsin Supreme Court battle to invoke local water quality standards. That’s a battle too important for Wisconsin’s little folks to lose.

* Think and act creatively. I believe local townships and counties should strongly consider proposing what I would label “Ground Water Districts.” In other words, take authority over groundwater and monitor (and assess) its use and quality. Let townships and counties bill water use by non-residential users, and use some of those financial resources to monitor water quality for neighbors who have a mega-dairy in their midst.

Putting water meters on non-residential private wells in rural Wisconsin and Illinois may seem like some kind of constitutional attack to the Tea Party types. But we must look upon groundwater as a scarce and finite resource. Ultimately, our society must regard industrial draw of groundwater as a taxable depletion of a resource, although I don’t suggest a politician in California, Idaho or the Plains States run on such a platform without a bullet-proof vest. Linking industrial groundwater use and water quality monitoring is wisest.

* Composting manure, perhaps after separating out liquid wastes, seems to be the wisest way to handle the fertility in dairy animal wastes. But composting takes more time and trouble.

* Another suggestion: if you live within two or three miles of a mega-dairy (or where the animal wastes will be applied to fields, it’s very important to develop a baseline test for your water quality BEFORE the mega-dairy starts up and the wastes are land-spread. Without a prior water-quality baseline, any legal claims seeking damages compensation for debased water quality will be very hard to collect. Wisely, there ought to be a concerned environmental group that could advise citizens what to test for … and, better yet … find a qualified laboratory that would offer significant group discounts.

* Encourage development of smaller-scale local agriculture. Let’s promote public policy to make farms of all sizes profitable, producing foods for the citizens of your locale and region. Recent events point out the dangers of being so globally dependent upon food, energy and commerce. Grass-based, small and medium-size agriculture is most appropriate for the future, I believe.

* Learn from the experience of the members of H.O.M.E.S. group in Jo Daviess County, which fought against A. J. Bos’ mega-dairy and had their accumulated lifetime financial assets put on the line by Bos’ lawyers.

Finally, I would liken the foolish rush to adopt the failing western mega-dairy model, here in Wisconsin and Illinois, to the issue of greater U.S. government subsidies for expanding our reliance on nuclear power.

In light of certain recent failures and their ever-expanding dangers, it’s not good enough, as President Obama illogically recently stated, “To learn from the experiences of the Japanese.”

By the time we “learn from the environmental experiences” of some mega-dairies, firsthand, it will be too late for local air and water quality. Do you folks in Rock County, Wis. trust your air quality and your water quality will be safeguarded by that giant PEE SHOOTER? If so, I know of a few slightly-used nuclear reactors on Japan’s east coast in which you might want to consider investing.

From the April 13-19, 2011 issue

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