Factory Farms, Dirty Water, and the Bible

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Factory Farms, Dirty Water, and the Bible

By Mark Winne

The following article was first written in 2006 for publication in the Sierra Club magazine “Sierra.” Though accepted in a revised form by the editors for publication, they chose not to run the piece for some reason that they were never able to explain to me. Though over two years have passed since I researched this story, I believe that the article’s facts and basic arguments remain true. In light of the growing concern over the state of our nation’s food system, I finally offer the complete, admittedly long story to the public on my blog. Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty.

Just an hour west of Texas, the gentle swells of New Mexico’s high plains calm to a pancake flat sea of grass. Crossing into Curry and Roosevelt counties at the state’s eastern edge, the empty landscape, broken only by the occasional grain elevator and abandoned village, quickly gives way to a discomfiting motion. Strung out along the highway’s edge in a nearly unbroken chain are cow pens filled with thousands of black and white Holsteins slithering in the summer heat like giant schools of beached eels.

Got milk? Eat Taco Bell cheese? Slurp Yoplait yogurt? Chances are pretty good this is where the main ingredient comes from. Curry and Roosevelt counties now enjoy the dubious distinction of being at the heart of the Great American West’s dairy industrial complex. With barely 20,000 dairy animals in 1992, the two counties now feed, milk, and clean up after 120,000 cows at 58 operating dairy farms, a number that by all accounts will double in a few short years. And to sop up all this milk (only 30% is used for fluid consumption), Curry County is now home to North America’s largest cheese plant, which extrudes a Velveeta-like product at the rate of one truckload per hour.

What do these many farms do to a place? At four tons of manure per cow annually, 120,000 cows produce as much excrement as the city of Los Angeles. The odor in the surrounding communities is bad enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon, and the hordes of flies stop outdoor picnics before the potato salad is uncovered. Besides being a nuisance, the winged insects are also disease vectors for a variety of bacteria-related illnesses. They may be one reason why Curry County’s asthma rate is three times higher than New Mexico’s statewide average.

But the dairy industry’s most problematic contribution is not easily seen or sniffed. Since large dairy farms – labeled by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – and milk processing facilities use more of the region’s limited water supply than other users, they present a serious threat to the counties’ main water source, the Ogallala Aquifer. And at the same time that the industry is sucking the ground dry, nitrates from the manure are finding their way back into the ground water in such concentrations as to alarm public health workers and state officials.

Pass the Bible and the Bucks

“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well (Matthew 6:33).” These are the simple lines of scripture that Otis Davis and his family live by since they started their Matthew 6:33 Academy to bring the teachings of Christ to families across the Southwest. Before this time, according to Otis, he had “built his house on the shifting sands of the world rather than the rock of Christ.” And it was during this earlier period, before he was born again, that Otis was the designated pitchman for Roosevelt County’s bid to become the dairy capitol of the world.

As a successful real estate developer, broker, and Roosevelt County Republican Chairman, Otis was at the vanguard of the recruiting drive to bring the dairy industry to his region. “In the early 1990s,” he told me, “I was a member of the Roosevelt County Economic Development Committee. Me and Ken Fusey, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, decided this would be a great dairy area. We have the right climate for cows, land was cheap, taxes were low, there’s little regulation, and we already had a few 100-head dairy farms. So we placed ads in farm magazines and went to trade shows in Chino Valley, California where the dairy farms were getting pressure from environmental regulators. I have a college degree in marketing, so I know what hot buttons to push to sell somebody something. But believe me, it wasn’t a hard sell to get those dairies to come here.”

To make the area even more attractive to dairy farmers, Otis and other community leaders spearheaded a drive to raise money to buy land for a new milk processing plant. “We had a meeting of banks and business people and told them we had to raise $300,000 in one day because we had a chance to bring this company to town. The banks and the big businesses were putting up $25,000 each. We wrote the pledges up on the chalkboard and had the money in no time. I put up $10,000 myself. We bought the land and just gave it to Dairy Farmers of America to build their plant.”

The plant was built and the dairies came. Farms of 5,000-head pushed aside the small ones, and the new dairymen, many of whom had left the Netherlands one or two generations back when that small country couldn’t handle the water polluting farms anymore, sank tens of millions of dollars into their new operations. Their capital came from the sale of their farms in Chino Valley, which went for as much as $200,000 per acre. They bought land in Curry and Roosevelt counties for $1,000 per acre. And before he knew it, Otis and his team of economic development boosters had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Voice of the People

Over half of America’s milk is now produced west of the Mississippi. The economic advantages of a near perfect climate, cheap land, subsidized water, an uneven, if not lax regulatory environment, a multi-billion dollar infrastructure consisting of rail, grain elevators, and dairy processing plants, and low-cost Mexican labor (only of half of which is legal by the admission of one Curry County dairyman) have made western dairies the low-cost producers in the national milk market. A New Mexico dairy farmer’s breakeven point for a hundred pounds of milk production is between $11.50 and $12.50. For a large (500-head), efficient New England dairy farmer, the breakeven point is over $14.00.

Twelve years have passed since those heady times when Otis and his pals raised a lot of money for rural New Mexico in what amounts to a New York minute. Roosevelt and Curry counties are now in the throes of a veritable dairy boom. For a few, it is literally the land of milk and honey. But for many long time residents, there is a growing disquietude that there is more pain than profit in their economic resurrection.

“They call this the ‘Bible belt,’ but when you see what’s going on around here, you wonder where the Bible is.” That was the cynical reaction to the dairy industry’s meteoric rise by Dan (a local resident who could not use his full name or employer for fear of being fired), one of a dozen local folks who gathered for lunch one day at Mark’s Café in Portales, the county seat for Roosevelt.

“The increase in the fly population is the biggest change over the last few years. You can’t leave any food on your counter.” said Erin, a housewife. “Another problem is that more trucking [associated with increased milk hauling] is tearing up the roads. We also have more cow dumping.” She was referring to a growing phenomena, confirmed by the County Sheriff’s Department, that dairy farmers are dumping dead cows along the roadways because they don’t want to pay the cost of removing the carcasses (according to some observers of the dairy industry, cow dumping is increasing because sick or “spent” cows have been so burned out by rBGH or are so sick that they can’t even be sold to McDonalds, the nation’s largest buyer of Holsteins).

Ron, a truck driver, said “our water level is way down. People our losing their wells right and left. Our neighbor, who previously had water at 90 feet had to re-drill his well to 125 feet.” While no one, including the dairy industry, disputes the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer is declining (at the rate of one to two feet per year according to New Mexico’s State Engineers Office), people only disagree when its water will become too salty to drink. The optimists say 40 years and the pessimists say 5. The deeper the well, however, the more energy required to pump the water, which becomes increasingly problematic in an era of rising energy costs. According to Dr. Neil Nuttal, former superintendent of the Clovis School District (the largest in Curry County), the school system’s water costs have gone from $50,000 to $250,000 per year because of increased pumping costs. “That’s less money we have for education,” he said.

There are social costs as well. Ron said that, “many of the dairies’ undocumented workers from Mexico were receiving medical treatment that we, the taxpayers, are paying for. The dairies don’t give them health insurance and the state exempts farmers from paying workmen compensation insurance.”

In response to the growth in Spanish speaking students, the Clovis School District has increased its English as a Second Language programs by three-fold, and the percentage of children receiving subsidized school lunch has increased from 26% to 52%, according to Nuttal.

Crime and jail overcrowding have gone beyond the headache stage for Curry County, a place that up until recently had only one or two homicides a year. In 2004, according to the district attorney’s office, there were 14 homicides. The Clovis News-Journal reports that, “jail overcrowding has crippled the county budget, leading to tax hikes and pay increases to keep detention workers on staff.”

A recent survey by the Roosevelt County Health Council, a quasi-governmental group that monitors public health, confirmed that environmental health concerns are widespread. Respondents (n=150) said that dairies were the number one cause of the county’s air and water quality problems. As Theresa, a housewife, put it, “living on the high plains, we have natural air conditioning, but we can’t open the windows because the manure odor is so bad.”

None of the people I spoke with were optimistic about conditions improving. As Dan said, “we don’t have an Erin Brokovich to go after these guys.” This statement was backed up by a unanimous belief that government would not help them. “The politicians are in the pocket of the dairy industry,” said Theresa.

The Power and the Politics of Big Dairy

Nothing gets as big as the dairy industry in New Mexico without political support and the strategic exercise of economic power. The hardhat adorned photo of New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson, proudly displayed by the New Mexico Dairy Producers Association at statewide agricultural expositions, breaking ground at the Clovis cheese plant is testimony to political support for the industry. In the words of Cindy Padilla, [former] Director of the Water and Waste Management Division of the NM Environment Department (NMED), the state agency responsible for issuing and monitoring dairy wastewater discharge permits, “our agency must balance the need for economic development with environmental protection.” The question, however, is precisely where is that balance.

Under the provisions of the U.S. Clean Water Act a prospective dairy operator in New Mexico must first obtain a wastewater discharge permit from the NMED. The evaluation of the application is based solely on the conditions at the proposed site of the dairy farm and representations made by the applicant. The NMED does not evaluate conditions in the surrounding area such as the number of dairy farms already in existence, the proximity of those farms to that of the permit applicant, or the total impact that a certain number of farms could have on the public’s health or environment. In fact, according to Ms. Padilla, there is no upward limit on the number of permits the department can issue, which means the number of dairy farms is only limited by the amount of land and water rights dairymen can purchase.

Air quality oversight fares even worse. In spite of the concerns raised by residents of Curry and Roosevelt counties, including the high rates of asthma, the NMED does not monitor air quality anywhere in New Mexico except in the state’s southern-most region. According to department spokesman, John Goldstein, “we have no plans to monitor air quality in dairy areas at this time.”

The quality of groundwater monitoring and enforcement is also in question. According to Paul Elders, director of Concerned Citizens for Clean Water, “New Mexico may have stringent groundwater regulations on the books, but the state falls down with respect to monitoring and enforcement. They just don’t have the staff or the funds.” Based on the number of groundwater contamination violations that are attributed to dairies, this appears to be the case. Maura Hanning, an employee of NMED, said in the NM Business Journal, “of the 194 permitted dairies [in New Mexico], about 61 have recorded discharges exceeding state regulations.” Though asked on three separate occasions for an updated number of groundwater violations by dairies, Ms. Padilla did not respond to the request. One former employee who spoke off the record said that there are “hundreds of violations,” and that in fact groundwater nitrate levels above the allowed level of 10 milligrams per liter may exist beneath every dairy in the state.

[Update: As of 2007, NMED records showed that over half of the state’s dairy farms were in violation of their permitted groundwater contamination levels. One dairy in the south eastern portion of the state reported nitrate levels that were 19 times higher than the permitted standard. As a result of a continued flaunting of state regulations by dairies, NMED has issued letters to at least 10 farms (the actual number is assumed to be higher as of late 2008) requiring the dairies to come into compliance with the standard. I was told by one NMED staffer that they could issue many more letters, but their low staffing levels limit their capacity to monitor and enforce compliance.]

Attempts by the dairy industry to suppress research and public discussion have had a chilling effect on scientists as well as citizens. Just ask Dr. Stephen D. Arnold of the Department of Health Science at New Mexico State University. Research that he conducted in 1999 on the impact of dairy farms on the state’s southern region found the following: an association between higher rates of diarrhea and asthma among children living near dairies, considerably higher number of flies in areas around dairies, and groundwater contamination at all of the study’s sample dairy sites. The levels of contamination exceeded quality standards for nitrate, ammonia, chloride, and TDS (total dissolved solids). When his data was released in professional journals, the dairy industry issued vehement protests stating that the university should not be supporting this kind of research. “The university administration was supportive of me,” said Arnold, “but I decided at that point that I had other things to do.”

When asked if he thought that more research needed to be done, Arnold responded, “Absolutely. You can’t tell me that if you put 30,000 cows along a 14-mile stretch of land, that after many years it doesn’t have an impact.” Nobody at NMED was aware at the time of his research until I told them about it. Nor was the agency aware that the American Public Health Association had issued a strong, carefully documented statement urging a national moratorium on all further CAFO development until a full environmental and health impact assessment was conducted.

Perhaps the influence of the dairy industry on New Mexico is summed up best by Rod Ventura, a [former] staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center: “The dairy industry is so powerful in this state that it doesn’t help to have science on your side.”

The Cows Come Home To Roost

One day a few years ago Otis Davis was suddenly confronted with the consequences of his highly successful promotion efforts. In a strange twist of fate (he might say that is was a sign from the Almighty) a 640-acre tract across the road from a property that Otis had formerly owned and developed for home sites was about to be turned into three dairy farms. He tried to reason with the dairyman, a person he had known for sometime, but to no avail. Due to the farmer’s intransigence, Otis was forced to bring the dispute to court. “Why should these dairies push us around, I asked myself? Even though I didn’t own the land anymore, if I didn’t stand up for them who would? So I hired a former New Mexico attorney general, spent $50,000 and three years of my life fighting this thing.”

In what may be the only occasion in eastern New Mexico when a dairy development was stopped cold, Otis succeeded in court. “My lawyer brought a sample of manure lagoon liquid in a bottle to court. The judge was so grossed out he found in our favor. We had proved that the farm’s wastewater would percolate into the aquifer, and that there would be an increase in flies, odor, truck traffic, and lights. We proved that these farms would have an adverse affect on the quality of life. So here I am, a person who put up $10,000 to bring the dairy industry to town, and a few years later spent $50,000 on this lawsuit.”

“I’m not against these dairies per se,” Otis makes clear. “By God, we need the jobs they provide. I know many of the dairymen, most of whom are family oriented and good Christians. But they have got to be more responsible. These dairies are not islands unto themselves because what they do affects us all.” He pauses for a moment as if searching deep inside himself for some revelation, and says finally, “We don’t realize what we’re doing to each other. We just can’t hand this problem off to our children!”

Big Dairy’s End Game

Dr. Charles Benbrook is an agricultural economist and former executive director of the Board of Agriculture for the National Academy of Sciences. He has devoted a considerable amount of his professional career to studying the dairy industry, whose growth in the west he finds “very perplexing.” Benbrook singles out water and the gargantuan scale of factory dairy farms for special scorn. He says that, “if the dairy industry in the Southwest was forced to pay the real cost of water, it would quickly move to the Upper Midwest and Northeast where rainfall is plentiful.” But, instead, the price of water for western farms is so cheap that it doesn’t even cover the management cost, let alone the replacement cost. Alfalfa, for instance, the key forage for dairy cows, requires one-acre foot of water to produce, and the bales are then trucked hundreds of miles to dairy farms. Grazing a commercially sufficient number of dairy cows on grass, as nature intended, is simply not economically feasible in New Mexico where rainfall is so sparse.

So how long do the factory dairy farms of the Southwest have? Benbrook says the expansion of large dairy herds in the West, especially to produce processed dairy products like cheese, “doesn’t make sense and is patently unsustainable because water will become too costly, and in not less than five years, but surely no more than 20, the dairy waste stream will overwhelm the absorptive capacity of the local environment.”

Eastern New Mexico is indeed part of the Bible belt. A drive down its county roads takes you past churches and billboards that admonish sinners in more ways than Christianity ever intended. Perhaps it is no surprise that in such a place where money and power often invoke religion, that neither science nor independent citizen action should be held in high regard. Nevertheless, men of faith like Otis Davis are worried; men of science like Stephen Arnold and Charles Benbrook are anxious; and citizens across the high plains are just plain tired of the stink, the dry wells, and the social and economic disruption in communities they no longer recognize.

If there is any good news here, it is the hope that salvation may follow revelation. “Fear God, and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come” is known to many in these counties where prosperity sits precariously on the shifting sands of the world. There is time, though not much, for the players in this drama to stop their slide to an environmental Gomorrah. Knowledge motivates, but it may be the fear of the fire and brimstone that ultimately ignites action.


For more information, visit Mark Winne's site, Closing the Food Gap

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