Got Milk

Larry Pearson, a second-term Wasco city councilmember, likes to drive the Kern County backroads that surround his home 27 miles northwest of Bakersfield. He stares past the monotony of irrigated almond orchards and alfalfa fields, looking for an aberration. And occasionally he finds it: cement plants operating without air permits, piles of dead cows stacked by the side of the road for days in blistering heat, sprawling dunes of illegally dumped human waste trucked in from Southern California.

So when Pearson’s 82-year old father complained on a dry August day in 2004 that the road out to the shooting range was flooded, Pearson decided to check it out.

Pearson and his father drove about 17 miles south to the Buttonwillow State Ecological Reserve to find the state parkland submerged thigh-high in liquid cow manure. Across the road, the Goyenetche Dairy, with over 7,000 cows packed into open-air corrals, had run a drainpipe into a culvert that leads onto the ecological reserve. The dairy flooded 16 acres of the reserve with its wastewater before state inspectors—responding to a call from Pearson—arrived on the scene a few days later. By that time, the fetid water was teeming with mosquitoes. The Goyenetche dairy now faces over $250,000 in fines and fees for its illegal dumping.

The San Joaquin Valley—the birthplace of industrial agriculture—is now the largest dairy region in the world, with 2.5 million cows shoehorned onto small lots between irrigated orchards and row crops. Most of these cows are newcomers to the valley, arriving by the thousands from the industrial dairies of the Chino Basin in the flatlands of San Bernardino County, southeast of Los Angeles.

Albert Goyenetche is no stranger to fines. His dairy in Chino was forced to pay $9,000 to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 for routing its wastewater to nearby public land, shortly after the local water board issued mandatory orders that dairies manage their wastewater, mostly by paying to truck it out of the area.

With Southern California’s insatiable development crowding in on all sides of the Chino Basin, then the largest and most concentrated dairy region in the world, the water board came under pressure in the ’90s to stop the salts and nitrates leaching from dairy wastewater into the aquifer that provides drinking water to millions of people in San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange counties. The water board adopted its “cease and desist order” on August 20, 1999.

Goyenetche found a very lucrative way to comply with the new rules. He sold out. Goyenetche and hundreds like him sold their land in San Bernardino County to housing developers and moved to the San Joaquin Valley, vastly expanding the size of their dairies in the process. “They did what a lot of polluting industries do: they raced to the bottom, moving to the land of least regulation,” says Brent Newell, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment who has represented groups fighting the influx of dairies. “Kern is close to LA. They could sell their land to developers in San Bernardino for $100,000 an acre and then buy into Kern for $3,500 an acre.”

Goyenetche left Chino, buying plots near Wasco and McFarland, and was soon back to business. In 2001, his Kern County dairies were cited for applying too much wastewater to their surrounding crop fields—leading to both air and water pollution—and were found exceeding the number of cows allowed on the property by nearly 2,000 cows.

By 1997 Kern County was home to 39 dairies with about 80,000 cows, comprising both milk cows and support stock. That number stepped up to 55 dairies with about 140,000 cows by 2002. In the past three years, the numbers did not step up, they shot up. “There are 58 existing dairies in Kern County, with 297,000 cows,” says Ted James, director of the county planning department. Then he points to a county map filled with clusters of orange and blue dots: “There are currently proposals for 19 more dairies totaling 173,000 cows,” most poised just beyond city limits where bulldozers eat more crop land than any beetle.

Some of the dairies that relocated from Chino to Kern paid for the move with state money earmarked for reducing air pollution. The Pollution Control Financing Authority gave out $65.8 million in low-interest, tax-exempt loans to 18 dairies from 2001 until 2004, until a Los Angeles Times expose led state regulators to suspend the funding. Each dairy also received a $250,000 grant to cover the administrative costs of applying for the loans.

James Borba received $8 million from the state fund to relocate to Kern and expand his dairy operation to 14,000 cows. Across the street, his cousin George Borba constructed his 14,000-cow dairy with $3.8 million from the state. State Treasurer Phil Angelides told the Times that the pollution control funds went to expanding mega-dairies due to a “staff error.”

The San Joaquin Valley has now surpassed Southern California as the largest dairy region in the world. While the total number of dairies in the nation has plummeted, the total number of cows in California has jumped from 1.6 million to over 2.5 million in just the last three years, and between Kern and Tulare, 600,000 more cows are in the proposal stage.

And with the cows—at least in these numbers—come a laundry-list of potential environmental hazards and nuisances. Nitrates and salts leach from cow manure to degrade the land and contaminate the groundwater. Cows belch smog-forming gases during the rumination process and toxic ammonia rises into the air from manure lagoons. Millions of pounds of manure also attract flies and mosquitoes, escalating the danger of West Nile virus. And, to state the obvious, thousands of cows producing millions of pounds of poop tend to smell really bad.

The San Joaquin Valley already has the worst air quality in the country. Levels of air pollution most often associated with the dense traffic and industrial smokestacks of the nation’s largest cities hover over the fields of the nation’s largest agribusinesses. The pollution in the valley consists of smog and particulate matter, those incredibly fine particles of dust, animal waste, exhaust, smoke, and toxic chemicals that lodge deep within the lungs of those who breathe it.

“Now we’re more polluted than Los Angeles,” Pearson tells me with a wry lift of his eyebrows. “Well, guess what happened? What’s the difference between when LA was the most polluted and we were second?” He pauses to let the question hang. “The dairies moved out of there to here, and now they’re number two.”

Dairies emit two main types of contaminants into the air: volatile organic compounds—such as methane, methanol, and acetic acid—and ammonia. The volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, react with oxides of nitrogen—in the valley, mostly produced by cars, trucks, and irrigation pumps—to form smog. Ammonia contributes to both smog and particulate matter contamination.

Agriculture in California was exempt from local air quality regulation until 2004, when a new state law lifted the exemption and required local air districts to create a definition for “large confined animal facility” and a plan for dairies to reduce “to the extent feasible, emissions of air contaminants from the facility.”

On August 1, 2005, the regional air district determined that San Joaquin Valley dairies emit 19.3 pounds of VOC gases per cow a year. The finding grabbed headlines across the country—cows pollute more than cars! Dairy owners say this is absurd. One suggests an experiment: lock a person in a closed room with a running car and another in a closed room with three cows, and see who comes out alive in the morning. While the proposed experiment confuses toxic and smog-forming gases, there is an interesting point: the San Joaquin Valley is a confined air basin; the pollution hanging in the air has nowhere to go. It is something of a closed room, if a very large one.

Supporters of the big dairies say that the district’s science is flawed. J.P. Cativiela, spokesman for the dairy advocacy group Community Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship, or CARES, says he supports regulation, but done correctly. “Our big criticism with the state regulatory structure is that rather than doing the hard work [to find the amount of VOCs emitted by dairy cows] initially the state makes a guess, and based on that guess we were determined the number one source of VOCs in the valley.”

Frank Mitloehner, the UC Davis scientist on whose work the district based much of its report, thinks that VOCs are a red herring. “I don’t know if it makes sense to regulate these types of gases,” he says pointing out that most VOCs come from biogenic sources like oak trees. Even if we could cut VOC emissions generated from human activity in half, he says, we would not make a dent in the ozone.

“VOCs are very, very different in nature,” Mitloehner says. Certain VOCs are more reactive than others when binding with nitrogen oxide to form smog, and those found in dairies are less reactive than others. “They are just as different as beer and vodka with respect to their potential of giving you a buzz. Right now they are all being treated alike by the regulatory agencies, and I don’t think that should be the case.” But, he adds, “Don’t get me wrong: dairies definitely have an environmental impact, and there are certain compounds we should look at like reactive nitrogen, for example, going into ammonia.” The dairy industry is the largest source of ammonia in the valley.

The VOCs released by bacteria in a cow’s rumen are only a portion of the gases found on a mega-dairy. Cow feed, or silage, releases ethanol, also listed as a VOC. The manure lagoons release nitrogen and lesser amounts of VOCs. But the largest source of air pollution besides cows belching all day may be the application of dairy wastewater to crops and fallowed land.

The dairy industry likes to call the wastewater—cow manure and urine collected in a lagoon for days or weeks on end—their “product.” How they deal with this “product” is a sensitive issue. If improperly stored in a lagoon or dumped on uncultivated land, it can leach into the underlying aquifer, exactly what happened throughout the Chino Basin. To get around this, state regulators imposed rules forcing dairies to either pay to have the wastewater dumped or to apply it to crops. The idea is that crops—mostly alfalfa, corn, and other crops used in silage—will absorb the nitrogen from the manure, thus protecting the groundwater. This only works if the crops are not flooded with more manure than they can use—and if they are not given fertilizers in addition. When crops receive too much manure, the bacteria end up releasing most of the nitrogen into the air, just as if the “product” had stayed in a lagoon.

“They are using our air as a wastebasket,” says Tom Frantz, a Shafter high school math teacher and community activist who lives a few miles from both new and proposed Kern County dairies. “They were told by advisors how best to release gases into the air to avoid nitrate soil contamination, which is regulated. That was their strategy—pollute the air!”

Larry Pearson says that one of the big concerns in his community is the use of hormones and antibiotics on dairy cows. “We know that if the cow’s body doesn’t use them, they are simply passed on,” he says. “Well, that stuff doesn’t just break down; it goes down into the water. Every cow gets a shot a week, I’m sure, and they get it whether they need it or not. What happens when that stuff hits our water?”

In 2002, 17-year-old Ashley Mulroy demonstrated that antibiotics were present in the Ohio River. Her discovery won her an international science prize and grabbed headlines across the country. In 2004, scientists from Colorado State University found antibiotics used in the cattle industry in streams and nearby soils. Ken Carlson, an associate professor of civil engineering who worked on the study, said at the time that finding the antibiotics in the water supply raises major concerns: the dangers of the substances themselves and their potential for contributing to the development of resistant bacteria.

In interviews with workers on the dairies (see “Steady As It Goes,” page 16) I learned that Pearson’s estimate of weekly shots is too conservative. Auturo Torres from Michoacan has worked on a dairy in Kern County the past two years, giving antibiotics shots. He gives a shot every day—to every cow.

The landscape of the industrial dairy is stark and minimal. The open-air corrals are shaded with long, narrow tin roofs where mounted fans angle downward, producing a warm breeze in the 100-degree August heat. At the borders of the corral, the cows line up, wedging their heads through metal bars to graze on feed spread across the pavement just beyond the bars. The heavy odor of silage fermentation and manure hangs in the air. As the animals eat, their bodies are cooled by misters. Flies blacken the bars, keeping back from the thin veils of water. Beyond the roofs’ shade, mounds of dirt and dried manure bake in the sun. Thousands of cows fan out over the mounds, standing and lying in clumps, taking in the prospects of an expanse where nothing grows.

From a distance, most of the mega-dairies in the San Joaquin Valley look exactly alike. The line of the corral’s roof, the arrow-straight line of heads bending through bars, the surrounding fields of irrigated crops; the manure lagoon adjacent to the corrals; the solid brick milking facility at the center of the operation with deep tinted windows and a slanted roof; the lone palatial house set in the middle of a startlingly green mowed lawn.

Up close the sights vary considerably. At some the manure lagoons are so putrid they appear to boil. Several have piles of dead cows oozing and rotting by the side of the road. Some have continually raked mounds, others have mounds covered with wet manure and urine. You can tell how clean an operation you’re approaching by the stench.

When I mention to Cativiela from CARES that I’m going to visit a few Kern County dairies, he tells me: “Don’t get yourself shot.” He is joking, of course, but for the joke to work—especially coming from a dairy advocate—it has to play off a shared assumption, which in this case is that the new mega-dairies are not the most welcoming of places.

Western Sky Dairy on Old River Road, 17 miles south of Bakersfield, is the most agreeable I’ve seen yet. The driveway to the main barn is lined with green grass, and yellow and orange flowers. The house is several grades less grandiose than others I have observed, though it would still be a three-million-dollar home within 25 miles of the California coastline.

The front door of the two-story red brick milking facility opens into a high-ceilinged room where a man is spraying down the concrete floor. To the right and left huge steel tanks tower up to the ceiling. Past the tanks, through an open doorway, the room expands into a huge enclosed milking facility. The hum of machinery sounds like a construction site. The cows are lined up, each locked in a space not much bigger than her body. In front of every space is a hose and nozzle that, to the city eye, looks like what you find at a gas pump. Outside, behind the milking facility, two corrals stretch for about 20 yards back and 50 yards to the right and left, with cows lined up across the whole area.

Nothing about the scene could be described as pastoral, yet there is nothing horrifying either. It is highly mechanized, the milking facility looks like a spaceship, and the whole operation seems pretty brutal for the animals. But at least it’s clean. Uniformed workers constantly hose down, spray off, rake, and sweep. And for a compact plot of land with about 8,000 cows on it, the stench is not that bad.

Cal De Jager is a tall man with short blond hair and weather-worn eyes. He has been a dairyman for fifteen years, moving from Chino to Kern County in 2002 after spending a year and a half constructing the dairy here. His father-in-law bought the land in 1988 and leased it to farmers, who still grow much of the dairy’s feed. Jager milks about 4,500 cows, filling six milk trucks a day. (For every milk cow, a mega-dairy usually has one support cow, so a dairy that milks 4,000 cows will contain about 8,000 cows . Numbers mentioned in county and state cow counts are milk and support stock.)

“We think of it as a family farm; it is run that way,” Jager says, leaning back in his small, unassuming office, its walls lined with photos of his children. “I live in the house out front, and I think it’s a fine place to raise kids.”

When I ask about the cow/car pollution comparison, Jager says he doesn’t think it is true, but he adds, “The pollution thing is our biggest challenge. Air quality is a very difficult thing to determine, to say how much pollution we generate. Do we contribute that much? I don’t think so, but I don’t have any science.”

I ask Jager how he deals with the mass amounts of manure his cows generate, all 17 pounds a day per cow. “We reuse manure for bedding material,” he tells me. “We dry it out to keep it a soft place for cows to lie. If it’s dry manure, it’s good bedding material.” This sounds so innocent that it takes a second before it translates: the cows lie and sleep in their own feces. Jager describes other applications, such as spreading lagoon water over the crops he’ll later feed to his cows: “We like to think of it as a kind of product. It will enhance the land.”

Jager likes what he does. He employs 37 people year-round, and he offers tours to local schools. “Our goal is to be a positive thing for the community, to be a positive thing for Kern County,” he says. “We try to make it look nice, clean and neat. I don’t want a mess in my backyard.” Jager is a kind of reverse NIMBY: in his backyard he wants the type of operation that many San Joaquin Valley residents don’t want within miles of theirs.

Pearson and his fellow Wasco city councilmember Danny Espitia climb into Pearson’s truck for a tour of the new and proposed mega-dairies surrounding Wasco and nearby Shafter. It is about 6:30 in the evening, and the late afternoon light cuts through the valley’s curtain of smog, making us squint. In the evenings, as it cools off, the cows move around, strutting their stuff in the dirt and dried manure, lifting blankets of dust into the air. Espitia points out the window. “The cows like to play in the evening,” he says. “Boy, do they raise a mess.”

Pearson and Espitia worked together in 2004 to pass a Wasco city resolution, Measure U, calling for a 10-mile “buffer zone” between dairies and Wasco city limits. The resolution met with opposition from the dairy lobby and Kern County supervisor Raymond Watson, but passed on the November ballot in Wasco with a stunning 82 percent of the vote.

Espitia says that while county supervisors did not support the Wasco initiative, they have been more receptive to metropolitan Bakersfield. “The amazing thing is that when Bakersfield wanted a no-dairy zone,” he snaps his fingers, “they had it like that. But the houses out there where the dairy buffer zone is, those houses are tremendous. Those houses are castles.” The point? Wealthier people who don’t want to smell cow poop while they’re out barbequing get no-dairy zones via the county’s general plan, while poorer rural areas don’t.

Ted James, Kern County’s planning director, explains that there is no “buffer zone” per se for Bakersfield, but that the county “added a policy” to the general plan discouraging incoming dairies in the metropolitan area. “So if I got a proposal I wouldn’t be able to approve it,” James says.

Like most of the valley, Bakersfield is growing at break-neck speed. No edge of town has been neglected by the developer’s blade. In discussing potential conflicts between expanding Bakersfield and the continuing influx of large dairies, James makes an acute observation: “Dairies like to locate in the path of urbanization.” When the cities grow close and push for tougher regulation, dairies can sell their land to housing developers. The substantial profits made on land sales finance not only a dairy’s move, but also its expansion.

Espitia makes the same observation, and that’s what worries him. “A lot of these dairies coming from Chino and that area knew that their land was going to be valuable in Chino, purchased all this land up here, and now they want to use it. But then what happens when they decide to leave and all the contaminants are left to us? It reminds me of the movie Independence Day where all these aliens move from planet to planet taking everyone’s resources away.”

Pearson turns south on Magnolia off Highway 46 and drives by the Vemeer and Goehart Dairy, a sprawling operation of over 5,000 cows, built before the county required permits. “This is the guy who always piles his dead cows by the road,” Pearson says. He lowers the windows as we approach, and the odor wafts in. We round the corner and there, across the street from the industrial rows of irrigated almond trees, lies a stack of rotting cows.

Pearson turns around and heads east on Burbank toward the Vanderham Dairy, two miles outside of Shafter. Vanderham’s proposed dairy has been the subject of lawsuits and resolutions and inspired Wasco’s successful initiative, Measure U, in 2004. “I was driving by two weeks ago and I thought, oh my gosh, they put up a cement batching plant to build the dairy,” Pearson says as he pulls over to the flat dusty shoulder. “They don’t have an air permit! And they’re building it, and no one’s stopped them, no one’s shut them down yet.” He points to the construction equipment in the cleared area back from the road. Mega-dairy construction takes a couple years and a lot of cement, so owners often put up batching plants to make their own—but they still must jump through the permitting hoops.

“That is not how we do business,” he says. “Every cement company within city limits in the state of California has to have an air permit. And they have to have water and they have to catch the dust. These guys are out here doing what they want. They didn’t get the air permit that’s required to have that cement batching facility. They should be sprinkling down those areas, but there’s no water there. The pumps aren’t in and they don’t have the ability to do those things. So it goes right into the air. They don’t care.”

On September 20th, the Shafter-based Association of Irritated Residents, or AIR, filed a sixty-day notice of intent to sue the Vanderham Dairy for violation of the Clean Air Act. AIR alleges that the Vanderham Dairy does not have an air permit to operate the cement plant. “Our lungs are not subsidies for the dairy industry,” says AIR president and teacher Tom Frantz.

I ask if it is possible to have a good 6,000-cow dairy. “It’s too costly for them,” Espitia says, “The dairies don’t want to pay the fees to be in compliance. And who’s going to implement them? There is no enforcement.” Indeed, when one knows the state water board employs seven people to monitor 1,700 dairies in the entire Central Valley, it helps explain the Sacramento Bee’s discovery in December 2004 that Hilmar Cheese had committed at least 4,000 water quality violations over 16 years, all with impunity.

Pearson and Espitia don’t believe all dairies are bad. “The old-time dairies,” Pearson says, “they had 200 cows. It was so different, and it’s not fair to group those dairy guys with these new dairies.”

Advocates like UC Davis’s Mitloehner say that dairies have to expand to keep up with consolidation in the milk market—that it’s grow big or go out of business. But choosing between excess and nothing is a false choice presented by those addicted to excess. There is a limit to how much nitrate can leach into water before it makes people sick. There is a limit to how much dust, gases, and chemicals the air can contain before they root in people’s lungs and kill them.

Ours is a sickness of scale. We come to depend upon conveniences that require the destruction of land, air, and water—the very fundamentals of life. Everyone who drives a car, seeks out the cheapest head of lettuce, or puts cream in their coffee is implicated. But the flip side of our shared complicity is our shared involvement in the solution.

Californians don’t need to choose between allowing big dairies or not. Nor do dairy owners need to choose between expanding to 14,000 cows—as the Borba cousins have done—or going out of business. There is a middle ground, but sadly, it is not to be found in the San Joaquin Valley.

After touring the rows of industrial dairies with their evening plumes rising as if from a tangle of smokestacks, Pearson turns back to Wasco. “All we are is the dump,” he says.

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