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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Dairies

Air Date: Week of

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Producer Guy Hand reports on the migration of dairies from California. Dairy farmers are looking to escape urban sprawl and strict environmental regulations and many have re-settled in Idaho’s Magic Valley. Dairy farmers and long-time state residents say the explosion has been a mixed blessing.


CURWOOD: Urban sprawl is often blamed for pushing the family farmer off the land. City folk move in, then suddenly realize their pastoral dreams don’t jive with how their noses respond to farm animals. Tempers flare, regulations multiply and, more times than not, farmers move on. Many dairy farmers have left California, and come to the Magic Valley of southern Idaho. They hope there will be fewer headaches from neighbors in this sparsely populated patch of high desert. But as producer Guy Hand has found, attitude and size make all the difference when it comes to cows and people sharing the land.

HAND: Dairyman, Dean Swager, remembers what it was like growing up in the Chino Valley, 40 miles east of L.A.

SWAGER: You could count the cars that went by on two hands everyday. But now, anymore, it’s very, very busy. There is a dairy every thousand yards. So, our fence line bordered another dairy fence line which had cows. The cows could touch each other between property lines.

HAND: Hemmed in by development, Chino Valley dairymen found themselves trapped on a shrinking agricultural island. That part of California now contains the highest concentration of cattle in the world. And with that comes problems.

SWAGER: Well now they’re putting all these new rules down and nobody can comply. And it’s getting very hard in order to get rid of your waste. You end up trucking it wherever you can find a place to put it. It’s becoming very difficult.

HAND: So Swager and his young family pack their bags and join the dairy exodus to Idaho. In October of 2000, they settled in the Magic Valley. Despite the name, it’s a dry, treeless plain that was passed on by early pioneers. Irrigation brought a smattering of small farms and ranches. But today, it’s still a place where Swager can count the cars that go by on two hands.


HAND: But the dairymen who blazed the trail from L.A. to Idaho a decade ago are finding that their problems followed them to the Magic Valley. Former Californian Andrew Jarvis manages a dairy of about 2.400 animals just west of the small town of Buhl.

JARVIS: So, when we first moved here ten years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of real negative publicity against dairies. But, it started about two years after we moved here.

HAND: As the dairies in southern Idaho multiplied, people began complaining about odors, water pollution, traffic, blaring lights and more, just like California.

JARVIS: It’s a little bit frustrating. It seems like we’re always in the corner getting knocked down. And it’s unfortunate because everybody needs to eat.

HAND: Like many transplanted dairymen, Jarvis thinks those complaining just don’t understand what it takes to make food.


HAND: But that’s where the story gets complicated. Many Idahoans know all about what it takes to make food.

HOKE: My grandfather was a dairyman. My uncles are dairymen.

HAND: Idaho native Marilyn Hoke, her husband and a few neighbors are standing in her front yard, just downwind from two newly-transplanted California dairies.

HOKE: I grew up on a dairy. I’m not afraid of the smell of cow manure.

HAND: But these new dairies aren’t like anything she’d seen or smelled before. Not the two- or three-hundred-head operations she grew up with, these dairies contained well over 10,000 cows. She says they’re factories, not dairies. And they’ve made the neighborhood unlivable. Marilyn’s husband, Robert.

ROBERT HOKE: The smell here, sometimes -- well, it used to be I’d sleep with my windows open at night. You can’t anymore. Because you wake up in the middle of the night nauseated.

HAND: Former neighbor, Sena McKnight, who has since moved to get away from the dairies.

McKNIGHT: We used to sit on the front porch step and watch the sunset go down. And we quit because we would just be swarmed by odors, flies, dust from the cows, dust from the traffic.

LYMAN: I’ve actually come out of my house and gagged and turned around and went right back in because it’s so bad.

HAND: Neighbor Bob Lyman.

LYMAN: People shouldn’t have to live like this.

HAND: After nearly a thousand complaints were recorded in the summer and fall of 2001, on one dairy alone, Idaho’s regulatory agencies began to take notice. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality started measuring the amount of hydrogen sulfide emanating from local dairies. Tim Teater is the Air Toxic Program analyst for the agency.

TEATER: And at the levels that we’re seeing, they would generally lead to eye irritation, throat irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing. If you have reactive airway disease like, for instance, if you’re an asthmatic like I am, a lot of times if you have elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide that can cause your asthma to worsen.

HAND: Readings taken by the department at one dairy property line registered 33 times the hydrogen sulfide levels suggested as safe by a recent study.

TEATER: It’s an interesting phenomenon that the complaints that we receive oftentimes come from people that lived in the areas for many, many years that have been farmers and ranchers and come from farming and ranching communities.

HAND: What’s fueled this trend towards factory farming in southern Idaho is, in part, the very urban encroachment on family farms that we’ve all heard about. As property values rose in places like Chino, California to $70 or $80,000 an acre, dairymen cashed out, and moved to far cheaper, less regulated land. In Idaho, it’s allowed them to build much larger dairies. So in the Magic Valley, it’s not suburbia that’s pushing hard against traditional, rural life. It’s this new, super-sized agriculture.

LEDBETTER: If we could all wave our wands and go back to everybody being able to make a living off of 160 acres, it would be wonderful. But, I mean, that’s just not reality anymore.

HAND: Greg Ledbetter is a California veterinarian turned Idaho dairyman.


Greg Ledbetter is a large dairy operator who believes that technology can solve the industry’s problems.

LEDBETTER: When people say, "Well gee, why are you milking so many cows?" I ask them, "How many of you would want to go back to milking 100 cows? And you’re going to milk those cows twice a day, 365 days a year, for $20,000." And the answer is, nobody in their right mind would do it.

HAND: Ledbetter puts his faith not in a return to smaller farms but into better management and more sophisticated technology. And that means dealing with manure. Since the dairy boom, some Magic Valley counties have seen close to 150 percent increase in animal waste. Still, Ledbetter is optimistic. He’s seen the Idaho dairy industry solve big problems before.

LEDBETTER: Seven years ago, there was nearly 50% of the dairies in this state that were discharging daily to various rivers and streams. Within three years, we had virtually 100% of those dairies cleaned up.

HAND: To stop animal waste from polluting rivers and streams, Idaho dairies built lagoons to hold manure until it could be composted or sprayed on cropland as organic fertilizer. Yet, their attempts to solve one problem led to another.

LEDBETTER: As soon as you start storing organic waste, and large volumes of it, you’re going to have bacterial breakdown that’s going to produce the odors. Our responsibility is to eliminate those odors. Anaerobic digestion may be one answer. Ozone treatment may be an answer. There may be other technologies out there that we don’t know yet. But we’ve got to find them. And we’ve got to find them quickly, in my opinion, if we’re going to continue to exist here in this state.

HAND: Ledbetter’s sense of urgency is understandable. Angry Magic Valley residents have filled town halls and legislative hearing rooms, demanding tighter restrictions on existing dairies, and moratoriums on building new ones.

Despite this opposition, Ledbetter is quick to point out that big dairies are a big boon to Idaho’s economy. Milk has replaced the famous Idaho potato as the state’s number one agricultural commodity.

LEDBETTER: It’s just incredible. As you start adding up the businesses in this little town that are there because the dairies are here, it’s a huge economic impact. These towns are vibrant again because the dairy industry’s been here.

HAND: Yet, a recent nationwide study of factory farms found they actually generate less state and local revenue per animal than do smaller operations.

Bill Stolzfuz sees other advantages in staying small. So, how many head of cattle do you have here?

STOLZFUZ: There’s about 85 milk cows, milking and dry.

HAND: A dairyman who fled Pennsylvania’s urban growth, Stolzfuz didn’t expand his dairy after settling in the Magic Valley.


STOLZFUZ: They all have names.

HAND: Your milk cows have names?

STOLZFUZ: Oh, yeah. Everybody has a name. And they’re all individuals.

HAND: Stolzfuz introduces me to his Holsteins.

STOLZFUZ: Well, the first one is Bobbi and the second one is Sassy and the third one is Muffin.

HAND: Because he has a small herd and lets them graze on pasture in the summer, he has few waste problems. And he doesn’t push his cows to the limits of production like big operators. As a result, they live far longer than the average of three or four years for cows in the mega-dairies.


STOLZFUZ: This cow is, Mindy is her name. She’s 12-years-old right now. And in a few months, she’ll go over 300,000 pounds of milk, lifetime. And still working away.

HAND: Despite, or maybe because of, his close relationship to his cows, Bill makes a comfortable living. And he’s had no complaints from neighbors about odors or anything else.

STOLZFUZ: I think we have an efficiency that some of the big operations can’t match, as far as our individual attention to details. And I have no problem with large operations, if they’re run well and managed well. But big just for the sake of big is not good.

MIDKIFF: I got almost 3,000 miles on my car since I left home.

HAND: Ken Midkiff does have a problem with large agricultural operations.

MIDKIFF: The problem here is you’ve got just too many cows in one place.

HAND: He’s the Sierra Club’s national expert on factory farms. He’s seen manure lagoons and other agricultural fixes fail all over the country, flooding into rivers and wetlands, seeping into groundwater.

With help from local activists Lynn Miracle and Bert Redfern he’s touring the Magic Valley, looking for federal clean water violations.


HAND: As the group passes dairy after dairy, Midkiff sees in southern Idaho what he’s seen in industrial dairy, hog and chicken farms all over America.


An anti-big dairy bumper sticker in the Magic Valley.

MIDKIFF: This really has nothing whatsoever to do with providing milk, or meat, or whatever we’re talking about, to a hungry world. What this is about is market control. It’s the attempts of a few big companies to control the meat, milk and egg markets.

HAND: Midkiff sees a very different story here than one of displaced farmers merely escaping urban sprawl.

MIDKIFF: A lot of them had to leave the Chino Basin because the California Water Quality Board really cracked down on them. And they were subjected to a bunch of regulations. So they’re really out looking for places where the regulations are either nonexistent or unenforced, such as in the Snake River Plains of Idaho. They’re pollution shopping. They’re looking for places where they can get away with contaminating the air and water, fouling the land and running family farmers out of business. I mean, that’s really what this is all about.

HAND: Lynn Miracle taps on the window, pointing to a vacant house they’re passing by.

MIRACLE: Here’s my son’s place that they bought out. The dairymen sent him a check from Chino, sight unseen, and essentially to get rid of him.

HAND: Some dairymen have simply bought out their most vocal critics. But as real estate prices plummet around large dairies, most homeowners are left trapped in houses no one will buy. In fact, many of the Valley dairymen themselves choose to live outside the area.

MIDKIFF: I mean, at some point, it just reaches a size where it’s impossible to manage in a way that’s not offensive. Either we’re going to have odor, flies or they’re going to foul the waters.


HAND: Soon, we find a source for all three. We pull off the road and get out of the car and walk toward what looks like a small mountain perched above the creek. Lynn Miracle.


MIRACLE: Well, you’re seeing a huge pile of dairy manure, poised on the very bank of Deep Creek, which is one of our major drainages here. And it’s all going to be all in Snake River in another five or six miles, or less.

HAND: Nitrate levels in the Valley’s water supply are rising, although government regulators are reluctant to blame the dairy industry. Still, it’s another worry angry locals add to a growing list. Bert Redfern.

REDFERN: When we moved to the country 30 years ago, we thought it was the most clean, wholesome, healthy lifestyle. Twenty years later, we have to purify our water. Talk to a large dairyman, and he’ll tell you that we’re just overly sensitive and that we’re urbanites that have moved in on them. But, that’s not what’s happening here.


HAND: American agriculture has long teetered between two distinct and often contradictory ideologies. The first is pastoral, embodied by Thomas Jefferson and a land dotted with small family farms. The second is industrial, embodied by Henry Ford, the assembly line, high technology and economies of scale. This divide is the one that separates organic farming from genetic engineering and a dairy of 50 cows from a dairy of 5,000.

Here, on the banks of Deep Creek, you only have to sniff the air to tell which way the agricultural wind is blowing.

MIDKIFF: That smells like cow manure to me. But a dairy person would say that smells like money.

HAND: For Living on Earth, I’m Guy Hand in Idaho’s Magic Valley.

[MUSIC: Earnest Woodall, "Bohemia Lies by the Sea," PICTURES IN MIND (Zephyrwood Music – 2002)]



University of Iowa study on the environmental and cultural effects of factory livestock farms

Idaho's Dairy Initiative">


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