Factory dairies catch Idaho's Magic Valley by surprise

 

 

 

TWIN FALLS, Idaho - In 1999, Ed and Phuong Smith built their five-bedroom dream home on the west bank of Cedar Draw, a tranquil alder-lined canyon that cuts through a colorful quilt of agricultural fields in south-central Idaho. A career military family, the Smiths raised three children while moving from one base to the next. Finally, after 25 years, they were ready to plant permanent roots in a peaceful rural area.

 

 

By spring of 2000, the Smiths relaxed on their new red-cedar deck facing Cedar Draw, watching coyotes, mule deer and birds in the canyon below. "I loved being out there to breathe fresh air in the evening," says Phuong (pronounced Fong), a native of North Vietnam.

 

 

Within weeks, however, the couple smelled a foul odor so strong that it forced them indoors. Depending on wind direction, they could pinpoint the stench as it wafted from either the manure-waste lagoons of the Desert Rose Farm, an 8,000-cow dairy operation two miles to the southeast, or the Dutch Touch, a 3,000-cow dairy three miles to the south. The Smiths discovered that Twin Falls County authorities had approved the siting of both dairies without any notification to neighbors.

 

 

To find out why, Phuong Smith contacted a confusing array of public agencies that had played a role in the approval process. None, she discovered, were required to inform neighbors about a new industrial dairy.

 

 

As for the odor, Smith learned from state officials that it was the result of decomposing liquid manure in waste lagoons, which contained hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, volatile organic compounds and methane. It seemed no wonder, then, that she suffered from frequent headaches, nausea, and burning and swollen eyes.

 

 

Smith happened to be acquainted with the wife of Hank Hafliger, the owner of the Desert Rose, so she invited him to her home on a May evening, as cooling temperatures sucked nauseating odors down Cedar Draw.

 

 

"He promised to fix it in 30 days," she says. "But it only got worse."

 

 

The Smiths were not the only ones upset by the dairies. Between May and November 2001, the Idaho Department of Agriculture received 916 citizen complaints about foul dairy odors emanating from the Desert Rose Farm. Many of those complaining were longtime residents who had lived on or around farms their whole lives.

 

 

"I'm not afraid of the smell of cow manure," says Marilyn Hoke, a neighbor of the Smiths, who grew up on an Idaho dairy. But "these are not dairies. They are factories."

 

 

Over the last decade, hundreds of industrial-scale dairies have moved into the Magic Valley, doubling the number of dairies in this seven-county area to 500 and the number of dairy cows to about 250,000. The influx, mainly from California, has highlighted the nomadic ways of modern dairy farming: Much like globe-hopping multinational companies, dairy farmers pick up and relocate frequently, searching for that next green pasture where land is cheap and the regulatory climate mild.

 

 

Wherever they gather, they run into public opposition. In the Magic Valley, the dairies have roused a largely rural citizenry determined to address a raft of bad-neighbor issues, including foul odors, flies, contaminated drinking-water wells and polluted groundwater. It's an uphill battle. Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Idaho and the cornerstone of the economy in the Magic Valley; lawmakers with ties to agriculture still dominate state and local politics.

 

 

But over the past two years, even the staunchest proponents of agriculture have taken notice of the conflict in the Magic Valley. And slowly, the political and regulatory bodies are moving to regulate the dairy industry.

 

 

"This is not urban vs. agriculture, this is very much agriculture vs. agriculture," says Idaho Sen. Laird Noh, a Republican sheep rancher from Kimberly, a small farm town on the eastern side of the Magic Valley. "Some critics are more vocal than others, but privately, everyone is unhappy with the situation."

 

 

"We've almost got a civil war," says a more blunt Bill Chisholm, a longtime environmental activist from Buhl, Idaho, who narrowly was defeated in a run for Twin Falls County commissioner last November. "It'll be a miracle if somebody doesn't get shot."

 

 

A California invasion

Historically, cooperation, not confrontation, has characterized the Magic Valley. The fertile agricultural land where Idaho's modern dairy war is being waged was once a sagebrush desert. Enterprising developers and engineers, working with determined settlers, turned the desert into the "Magic Valley" almost a century ago by adding a key ingredient: water. Milner Dam, built in 1904, east of Twin Falls, diverted the flow of the Snake River into two canals that bring water to the desert on the north and south sides of the deep river canyon. Wearing tall hip boots to protect themselves from rattlesnakes, pioneers cleared sagebrush and rocks to grow irrigated crops and raise cattle.

 

 

Today, Magic Valley farmers cultivate about 1 million acres of land. Beyond the canals, farmers tap into the Snake River Plain Aquifer to irrigate potatoes, corn, wheat, barley, alfalfa and sugar beets, and to water livestock. The aquifer is a massive underground water source that extends 250 miles from points southwest of Yellowstone National Park to Twin Falls. Along a 40-mile reach on the north rim of the Snake River, it surfaces at Thousand Springs with a brilliant display of waterfalls pouring over basalt cliffs into the river. More than 100 fish farms draw pure water from Thousand Springs to raise more trout than any other place in the world, for distribution to restaurants, food-service companies and grocery stores.

 

 

Family farms have long dominated the Magic Valley, but that started to change in the 1980s, when plummeting commodity prices began forcing farmers to sell out. At the same time, dairy farmers in Northern and Southern California - hit by the same low prices, but also squeezed by rapidly rising land values - were looking for a new place to go. Initially, California dairy farmers shipped Holstein heifers to Idaho to feed them on pasture and hay, but as they became acquainted with the Magic Valley, they decided to set up shop there permanently, says Lewis Eilers, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

 

 

Land was cheap - only about $2,000 an acre - farms had cheap water rights attached, environmental regulations were lenient, local dairy-siting ordinances were nonexistent, and good-quality feed was abundant. As more dairy farmers moved to Idaho, even more followed, Eilers says. "Dairy farmers are like flies - they like to stick together."

 

 

One of the early transplants was Greg Ledbetter, who worked as a full-time veterinarian serving dairies in central and Southern California before moving to Jerome, Idaho, in 1983.

 

 

"When you can sell property down there for $100,000 an acre, at some point it makes sense to sell out and move your operation," Ledbetter says.

 

 

Flush with cash, California dairy farmers did what farmers all over the country are doing - they increased the size of their operations. Industrial-sized hog, poultry, cattle and dairy operations - known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs - are now commonplace throughout rural America (HCN, 11/8/99: Can a hog farm bring home the bacon?). In the West, CAFO operations have sprouted in South Dakota, Wyoming, eastern Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and California.

 

 

"If we could wave our wands and go back to farm families being able to make a living off 160 acres, that would be wonderful, but that's just not reality anymore," says Ledbetter, who runs the C Bar M Dairy with his wife, Janie. C Bar M's operations have doubled over the last 15 years to 1,200 cows. "It's simple economics," he says.

 

 

The movement of industrial-sized farms to places like southern Idaho has a lot to do with the regulatory climate, says Ken Mitkiff, the Sierra Club's national expert on factory farms. "A lot of (dairy farmers) had to leave the Chino Basin (in Southern California) because the California water board cracked down on them," he says. "So they're really out looking for places where the regulations are nonexistent ... or unenforced, like in the Snake River plains of Idaho. They're pollution shopping."

 

 

Idaho Sen. Laird Noh agrees. A friend in real estate told Noh that he was approached by a California dairy farmer in a red sports car who was seeking to move to Twin Falls County. The Realtor mentioned that he had some property listings that would be appropriate for a large dairy in another county. The farmer said, "No, it's got to be Twin Falls County."

 

 

"In Twin Falls County, the man said, he knew he could walk in the door of the planning and zoning office and get all of the permits he needed in a couple hours," Noh says. "That was the reputation, and it was well-known. There was a race, a conscious race between large dairies leaving primarily California, and they moved very quickly, so the cement and facilities were in place before the regulations were in place."

 

 

Now, Twin Falls, Jerome and Gooding counties are scrambling to enact new regulations addressing large dairies. In 2001, Gooding County commissioners adopted a one-year moratorium on the siting of new dairies, which they extended another four months this past February, in order to give the county time to write a CAFO siting ordinance. This past winter, Twin Falls County lifted a moratorium on new dairy farms when it adopted a new livestock confinement ordinance. For new dairies of 1,000 cows or more, the ordinance requires a two-mile setback from adjacent property owners, public notification and a public hearing preceding each dairy site approval.

 

 

Ed Smith, who sat on a committee that crafted the Twin Falls ordinance, has high hopes that it will locate new dairies in places where they have little impact on residents. But only time will tell: In the few weeks since the Twin Falls moratorium was lifted, the county has received one application for a new dairy with 880 animal units, according to planning and zoning officials.

 

 

Bigger than potatoes

The intense public reaction to last summer's odor problems has made many dairy farmers reluctant to talk with the media. But those who do are quick to point out that they have made a major contribution to the local and state economy. Milk has now surpassed potatoes as Idaho's No. 1 agricultural commodity, with a value of approximately $1 billion in 2001 - nearly twice the value of the potato industry last year. Idaho now ranks sixth in the nation in milk production, a big increase from the 1980s, when the Gem State ranked in the 20s. California is still No. 1, but other states, including New Mexico (ranked No. 7), have benefited from a steady exodus of California dairy farmers.

 

 

Magic Valley dairy farmers sell about $550 million worth of milk to Davisco Foods International, Glanbia Inc., Kraft and Dairygold, which operate seven cheese, whey and condensed milk processing plants in the valley. Dairy farmers purchase $220 million worth of hay annually, primarily from local growers.

 

 

The milk-processing plants provide good-paying jobs that didn't exist in the Magic Valley 15 years ago. Glanbia, for example, employs 430 people at its four plants, and Jerome Cheese, owned by Davisco, employs 230 people in two shifts that run around the clock. Dairy-farm employees can make $36,000 a year, far more than what they could earn on a row-crop farm.

 

 

"It's incredible when you start adding up the businesses in this little town (Jerome) that are there because the dairies are here," says the C Bar M's Ledbetter. "Twenty years ago, Jerome was dead and so was Wendell (eight miles West)."

 

 

Milk-processing plants such as Jerome Cheese were actively recruited to the area by Jerome dairy farmers in the 1980s, Lewis Eilers says. At the time there was more milk than local processing plants could buy. A picture on the wall of Jerome Cheese depicts a donkey standing in the middle of a pond. The words say in Dutch, "If you come, we will drown your ass in milk."

 

 

Managing mega-manure

Dairy farms are drowning the Magic Valley in more than milk. Cows eat a lot, and they produce a lot of manure. The working estimate is that a dairy cow discharges 20 times as much waste as a human per day. That means a 1,000-cow dairy will produce the same amount of waste as a city of 20,000 people with no sewage treatment.

 

 

Dairy farmers dispose of the waste by using dry and liquid manure to fertilize crops, and by building lagoons to store wastewater. But some of the wastewater inevitably spills into irrigation ditches and tributaries of the Snake River.

 

 

By the early 1990s, complaints about manure-laden runoff from dairy farms had become so prevalent that the Idaho Legislature passed the Idaho Dairy Pollution Prevention Initiative, which outlawed any surface-water discharge from dairies. That meant dairy farmers had to "close" their operations by storing manure waste in lagoons for up to six months. Ironically, the consolidation of waste has exacerbated the odor problem.

 

 

At the C Bar M dairy, Ledbetter's employees use a backhoe to scrape waste from a 100-yard-long feeding shed, and run it through a series of settling ponds to separate solids. The solids go into the compost heap, and liquid manure waste is stored in the lagoons. During the crop season, lagoon water is mixed with fresh water to irrigate crops. Dry manure is also applied to croplands as fertilizer.

 

 

Ledbetter says the new law, which requires dairy farmers to devise nutrient-management plans, is working. Before it was passed, nearly 50 percent of the state's dairies had daily discharges, he says. Within three years, more than 90 percent of the dairies had stopped that practice, and "today, that number is 99 percent-plus," he says.

 

 

Under the law, all dairy farmers must monitor how much manure is applied to farm fields and prevent excessive nutrients from seeping into ground water. During the summer, Ledbetter tests the soil frequently to ensure that nutrients are not leaching into groundwater.

 

 

But not all farmers are as diligent as Ledbetter.

 

 

Stacy and Art Butler, who run a third-generation cattle ranch near the town of Bliss, experienced a nasty dispute with their neighbor, Jake Bosma, who bought a ranch and turned it into a 1,200-cow dairy in the early 1990s. When Art Butler saw the construction of manure-waste lagoons under way, he approached his new neighbor. He was concerned that the lagoons were perched above Spring Cove Spring, the source of the Butlers' drinking water.

 

 

"He told us that he wouldn't contaminate our spring, but he wouldn't explain how," Butler says. "So we told him that we would oppose his dairy. And he says, 'There's nothing you can do. I've got the permit and the water right. I'll see you in court.' "

 

 

In 1999, things went from bad to worse when Spring Cove Spring showed high nitrate levels - 18 parts per million, compared to a federal safe drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Then a bird hunter discovered dead calves, aborted fetuses and tons of manure on top of the Walker Spring, owned by a neighbor of the Butlers, adjacent to the dairy.

 

 

Jake Bosma, who did not return calls for this story, admitted that his dairy had dumped the dead animals, and Idaho Department of Agriculture officials fined him $20,000.

 

 

But the Butlers were still concerned about the future of their water supply. So were other farmers who, like the Butlers, were members of the Idaho Rural Council, a 500-member, pro-family farm group that advocates sustainable agriculture. In December 1999, the Western Environmental Law Center filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against the Bosma dairy on behalf of the council.

 

 

After the suit was filed, Art Butler's brother came home one day to find a dead squirrel with a bullet in its head sitting on his front step. "We knew it was some kind of symbolic act of intimidation," Stacy Butler says. "(Jake Bosma) had threatened my husband before."

 

 

The Clean Water Act case was settled last November. Bosma agreed to pay $150,000 for water-quality improvements, attorneys' fees and court costs, according to court documents in U.S. District Court. He also agreed to eliminate a lagoon that directly threatened the Butlers' spring, line several ponds with clay or synthetic liners, drill a new well for the Butlers, and bring the dairy into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

 

 

"That dairy should never, ever have been located over the top of our springs," says Stacy Butler.

 

 

Murky waters

The Butlers also have concerns about increasing nitrate levels contaminating the Snake River Plain Aquifer, a primary source of drinking water for 200,000 people and an important economic resource for trout farms. A report issued by the Idaho Department of Agriculture found that 95 percent of 761 dairy wells sampled tested positive for nitrates. Six percent, or 38 of the wells tested, exceeded the EPA's national drinking water standard. In Twin Falls County, seven wells exceeded the standard.

 

 

Follow-up testing with nitrogen isotopes revealed that 30 of the 38 contaminated wells were tainted by excessive amounts of organic nitrogen in the soil, linking the contamination to dairy manure, according to the report.

 

 

Nitrates in drinking water can be a serious problem. Infants under the age of six months can suffer from nitrogen poisoning and a subsequent oxygen deficiency known as "blue baby syndrome" that can lead to death. Nitrates have also been linked to long-term health consequences such as cancer, reproductive problems and neurological impairment in children.

 

 

"When we moved to the country 30 years ago, we thought it was the most clean, wholesome, healthy lifestyle," says Bert Redfern, who lives near the Desert Rose dairy. "Well water was the best-tasting I'd ever had in my life. (But) we don't even dare drink it anymore."

 

 

The $100 million fish-farm industry is also worried. In July 2000, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality found an upward trend in nitrate levels in four major springs in the Thousand Springs complex from the early 1990s to 1999. Dairy waste and nitrogen fertilizer for row crops were considered the two most likely sources of elevated nitrates.

 

 

Across from the mouth of Box Canyon Spring, Clear Springs Foods produces the most rainbow trout in the Magic Valley. The company depends on a continuous pure water supply at 52 degrees, ideal conditions for growing tasty rainbow trout with pink flesh.

 

 

"We do have concerns about water quality," says Randy MacMillan, chief of water quality research for Clear Springs Foods. "We've seen an increase in nitrate levels in the last 10 years, but it's unclear exactly where it's coming from."

 

 

Idaho DEQ officials are working with dairy interests, citizens and farmers to devise a long-range management plan for agricultural practices in the Magic Valley, in hopes of preventing the aquifer from becoming more contaminated. But until nitrate levels exceed state and federal standards, compliance with the plan is voluntary, says Mike Thomas, aquifer protection supervisor for the DEQ in the state office in Boise.

 

 

The Idaho Department of Agriculture is charged with the oversight of dairies and with encouraging farmers to use best-management practices to prevent groundwater contamination. But activists say the department is not doing enough, especially with regard to wastewater lagoons. State regulations do not require farmers to use plastic liners or other nonpermeable materials. Hundreds of lagoons, lined only with clay, sit atop the aquifer.

 

 

Stacy Butler believes the water-quality data should force the state to place a moratorium on the approval of any new dairies that overlie the Snake River Plain Aquifer. "It's a nightmare waiting to happen," she says. But the DEQ's Thomas points out that county governments make the decision on where dairies can be located, and they often do so based more on economic and political considerations than on environmental limitations.

 

 

Sen. Noh says the state's water-quality regulations may not be strong enough to deal with the growing pollution problem, and the Legislature will have to revisit them "at some point."

 

 

Searching for solutions

That point apparently hasn't been reached yet. Most of the recent action in the Idaho state Legislature has focused not on water quality, but on odor.

 

 

The prime mover is Idaho Rep. Doug Jones, a moderate Republican, who owns a diversified farm close to Cedar Draw, the Dutch Touch and the Desert Rose, south of Filer. He is the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in the Idaho Legislature, a resident who lives close to ground zero for severe odor complaints, and a farmer who sells hay to dairies.

 

 

Urged by his neighbors to force dairies to curb odors, Jones sponsored and helped pass an odor-management bill in the 2001 session that provides a very general odor standard. He worked on putting more teeth in the law during the 2002 session, which adjourned in March.

 

 

"There's no question that the dairies have caused excess odors," Jones says. "Last summer, my daughter got married and she wanted to do a barbecue in our backyard on her wedding day, but we couldn't do it, because the odor was too overpowering."

 

 

During a joint hearing of the Senate-House Agriculture Committees in mid-January, citizens testified that the Department of Agriculture's new odor rules aren't strong enough to protect public health or substantially reduce odors.

 

 

The Department defines "excess odors" in the following way: an agricultural operation that generates ... "odorous emissions in excess of levels normally associated with acceptable agricultural practices in Idaho." Critics say this amounts to a subjective sniff test.

 

 

"The idea that it's just an aesthetic issue is wrong," says Tim Teater, air toxics program analyst for the DEQ. "We believe that there are public health issues." Asthmatics are particularly vulnerable to the chemicals coming off of waste lagoons, says Teater, himself an asthmatic.

 

 

The DEQ used to be in charge of enforcing all air- and water-quality issues surrounding dairies, but over the last several years the state Legislature has handed control to the Department of Agriculture. Critics complain that Ag has a conflict of interest: The agency receives approximately $1 million a year from dairy farmers to pay for milk inspections and dairy-management concerns.

 

 

"We've heard a lot of comments about the fox guarding the henhouse," says Department of Agriculture Dairy Chief Marv Patten. "It seems odd and strange to me, considering the Department of Agriculture is responsible for protecting public health when it comes to milk inspections, where there was a trust and still is a trust to this day."

 

 

Citizens like Ed and Phuong Smith want the department to embrace a specific standard for dairy odors. A number of states, including Minnesota and Nebraska, have established a public-health standard of 30 parts per billion for hydrogen sulfide. In the spring of 2001, the DEQ recorded hydrogen sulfide levels of 1,500 parts per billion in the Cedar Draw area.

 

 

Critics also want the Legislature to return authority over odor control to the DEQ, but Jones and Noh know that won't fly in the pro-ag Legislature. Jones sponsored a new bill in 2002 that calls on the Department of Agriculture to establish a yet-to-be-determined health-based standard for hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

 

 

In the same bill, Jones tried to increase penalties for dairy farmers whose operations are repeatedly found guilty of emitting excessive odors, but the dairy industry succeeded in keeping the fine at $10,000 per violation. Still, the new odor bill passed the Idaho House of Representatives by a close 37-32 vote. It prevailed in the Senate 35-0, and has been signed by the governor.

No quick fix

Controlling all of the problems caused by dairy farms will take a coordinated effort, something that has yet to happen in Idaho. Counties are responsible for siting dairies, but they don't have any responsibility for protecting groundwater. The Department of Agriculture is charged with regulating odors and protecting groundwater, but it doesn't have any input on siting. The DEQ is responsible for developing specific health guidelines for dairy odors, but the Department of Agriculture is charged with enforcing odor problems.

 

 

"With all of these agencies involved in different aspects of the approval process, it's easy for problems to slip through the cracks," Stacy Butler says.

 

 

Ultimately, on the groundwater issue, the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act. That means, if the Department of Agriculture fails to protect water quality, the EPA could step in or citizens could file a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, as the Rural Council did, to force bad actors to clean up the water.

 

 

A consensus seems to be emerging that more needs to be done if the Magic Valley is to avoid becoming an economic monoculture. But that resolve is still tempered by the might of the dairies. As Kent Just, executive director of the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce says, "Naturally, we'd be concerned about odors if they drive people away from a tourist attraction. But we want the dairy industry to be healthy, and we want them to be good neighbors, and from our perspective, 99 percent of them are good neighbors."

 

 

Some dairy farmers are looking to technology to reduce the conflict. One solution would be to build anaerobic manure digesters, which are covered and have the added benefit of producing electricity from gas released by the decomposing manure. Ledbetter has received five proposals from various companies that would like to build an anaerobic digester project at his dairy. He would like to pursue the technology, but he is waiting for Idaho Power Co. to provide cost-effective power purchase rates.

 

 

"There's no question that anaerobic digesters will work on dairies," Ledbetter says. "The problem is, our power rates are so cheap that we can't justify the expense."

 

 

Eilers of the Dairymen's Association says a digester project could be combined with a greenhouse for growing vegetables. "This odor thing is not an unsolvable problem. We could have 600 acres of greenhouses growing produce in the middle of the winter when fresh vegetables are in short supply," he says.

 

 

If dairy farmers embrace anaerobic digester technology, citizens may eventually get a break from persistent foul odors. But in the meantime, the summer of 2002 could be another stinky one in the Magic Valley.

 

 

After receiving two notices of violation and fines from the Department of Agriculture, Desert Rose owner Hank Hafliger has spent $350,000 modifying his operation to curtail odors, according to his attorney, Ken McClure.

 

 

"It's clear to Hank that if he can't fix the odor problem, he will ... have endangered his operation."

 

 

Eilers warns that citizens and local government should not push too hard to place environmental and odor restrictions on dairies, because it could cause some dairy farmers to move.

 

 

"I very definitely think that could happen," he says. "Dairy farmers in Idaho could decide to move to South Dakota, Wyoming or Kansas. The incentives are there to move, and the dairy farmers will say ÔI'll go where it's friendly.' "

 

 

Fewer dairy farms doesn't sound too bad to Phuong Smith, who doesn't want to move, herself.

 

 

"I experienced communism and government dictatorship in North Vietnam," Smith says. "My family came to the United States to enjoy all the benefits from freedom, liberty and justice for all. If you can't enjoy life's simple pleasures, like dinner on the patio, then you become a hostage."

Stephen Stuebner writes from Boise, Idaho. Guy Hand, Radio High Country News correspondent, contributed to this story. His piece on dairy farms can be heard on www.hcn.org, HCN's Web site.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Stephen Stuebner

 

 

 

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