Fun with factory farms!


Mooooove over, Wisconsin. You're quickly losing your dairy state cred to the West.  Unfortunately for those of us who live beyond the 100th meridian, though, the usurped title of America's Dairyland comes at a price. As factory-sized dairies colonize the West, they have significant effects on water and air quality, as well as quality of life, in the towns those farms call home.

Dairies, feedlots, hog farms, broiler chicken houses and egg production facilities have all exploded in size over the past decade or so. They've also become more concentrated geographically, increasing the environmental burden on certain locales.

Data on these shifts is publicly available through the United States Department of Agriculture's census, but the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch recently made it much more accessible, focusing on the largest facilities with the largest environmental footprints -- factory farms. This week, the group released a 48-page report and an updated version of their interactive map of factory farms across the country. It's linked up to an extensive database, and it gives viewers a chance to explore how many factory farms there are in their county, and changes in the number and concentration of facilities between 1997, 2002 and 2007.


Click on the map to access Food and Water Watch's factory farm application.

Four Western states -- California, Idaho, Texas and New Mexico -- have come to dominate the large-scale dairy landscape. Washington, Arizona, and Colorado also have a significant percentage of the nation's megadairies.

Waste management is one of the biggest problems that arises when animal facilities scale up, as they have in the past 10 or so years in states like Idaho, Utah and New Mexico. A single cow generates an average of 150 pounds of manure daily, so a dairy with 2,000 cows (the average for a New Mexico dairy) produces 1,050 tons of manure a week. Much of this gets applied to nearby fields. But the manure isn't always spread at the right time or in the right amounts. So lots of the nitrogen in it leaks into groundwater or becomes airborne, contaminating drinking water or diminishing air quality. Large scale hog facilities, like those that have brought half a million pigs to Beaver County, Utah, have similar problems.

California, which has long hosted ginormous dairies, has yet to come up with a good solution to its dairy-related pollution problems. The Central Valley Regional Water Control Board will soon require dairies to track and limit their field manure applications, but this approach does nothing to mitigate existing pollution, and it's hard to tell if it will be effective.

There are a host of other problems that come with the snowballing size and geographic concentration of animal agriculture facilities. They range from amplified use of antibiotics, which make their way into water supplies and can increase human resistance, and increased risk of the spread of food safety hazards like salmonella and E. coli, all of which are documented in the Food and Water Watch report.

Still, the federal government doesn't have a coherent strategy for managing factory farms. Domestic policy has, wittingly or not, encouraged industrial agriculture to grow and concentrate through cheap feed subsidies and lackluster antitrust enforcement, but environmental regulations have not kept up with agriculture's transformation into a factory-style industry. Regulation of factory farm waste products usually falls under the authority of the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, neither of which was created with an eye toward regulating 2,000 dairy cows or 100,000 beef cattle milling about on a few dusty square miles.

Large concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, for example, are only considered point sources under the Clean Water Act if they discharge or plan to discharge their manure directly into a waterway. But manure storage and spreading can still cause water contamination, even if farms don't discharge waste into water bodies. And despite the fact that they may emit significant amounts of nitrogen oxides, ammonia and dust, most factory farms are exempt from Clean Air Act reporting requirements, a loophole established during the Bush years.

In many cases, big operators say they can produce more food for less money, which is good for consumers. That’s true to an extent, but ag economists note that many scale economies have an efficiency threshold. While an operation may save money by jumping from 50 to 100 cows, it may not gain efficiency by jumping its herd size from 100 to 200. There are, however, advantages to being large -- the big milk distributors and packing houses may prefer to deal with large dairies and feedlots, for example, to minimize the number of sellers they deal with or ensure their products have uniform quality.

Under Tom Vilsack, the USDA has started to look at some of the problems caused by agricultural monopolies. They have yet to take a look at those caused by scale. Maybe it's time they should.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.