Sunday, October 3, 2010

Megafarms force close look at industry's future

Dairy farming in northwestern Illinois is often a family business that has been passed down for generations.

So when California dairyman A.J. Bos in 2008 began building a dairy operation for 5,500 cattle called Tradition Dairy, 30 miles east of Galena, Ill., residents had strong reactions. Some supported Bos' right to run his farm without interference. Others protested what would be the largest dairy in the state, which they fear could ruin their air and water.

The battle is being waged in court, at regulatory agencies and even in the race for governor.
Its outcome, both sides say, will influence the future of farming across the state. It could determine the extent to which large constrained livestock facilities will have to work to ensure the safety of the environment. It will affect the health of the agriculture industry in the state, experts say. And it could alter the notion of what constitutes a family farm.

Tradition Dairy was proposed in 2007, on farmland a mile west of the small town of Nora.
Bos planned for two sites to hold 11,000 cows, but the second has been put on hold, at least for now.

The Jo Daviess County Board in 2008 voted 11-5 to recommend that the state reject the Bos proposal, but the Illinois Department of Agriculture eventually approved the project's permit.
Residents who opposed the dairy formed a group called Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards, which filed a lawsuit in 2008 seeking to stop the project. While they won a temporary injunction, a circuit judge ruled for Bos in December. The residents have appealed, and with the case in Illinois Appellate Court, Bos has delayed further work on the project.

The dairy opponents say the farm sits on land characterized by cracked limestone, which allows surface water and any contamination to rapidly drain into the ground.

Sam Panno, of the Illinois State Geological Survey, and several other geologists say the region's groundwater is vulnerable to any ground contamination. But engineers for Bos took soil borings on the site and concluded otherwise.

Meanwhile, the issue has found its way into the race for Illinois governor. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who was then lieutenant governor, gave HOMES an award for its efforts and posed with a sign promoting the organization's Web site,

He has also written a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking it to look into the project. Bos attorney Donald Manning says the governor's action was an improper attempt to influence regulatory review.

Quinn's spokeswoman, Annie Thompson, and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials say he was following appropriate procedures.

Quinn's Republican opponent in the November election, state Sen. Bill Brady, expressed measured support for the project.

"We need to ensure projects are environmentally sound," his campaign spokeswoman, Patty Schuh said, "but we also should not be throwing unnecessary regulations and roadblocks in front of opportunities to put families to work."

Bos says the project would employ 40 people and produce $200,000 in taxes.
Like other concentrated animal feeding operations, the Tradition Dairy is designed to be "zero-discharge," meaning it won't release contaminants into groundwater, Manning said.

Plans call for it to process more than 90 million gallons of waste every year. Solids would be turned into 1,400 tons of mulchlike bedding for the dairy's cows. Remaining liquids would be held in clay-lined manure ponds until they could be injected as fertilizer into surrounding croplands.

Researchers working with The Pew Charitable Trusts and various health and animal rights groups warn against the construction of CAFOs, saying they harm the environment, endanger public health and dampen small town economies. The American Public Health Association has called for a moratorium on new CAFOs.

The U. S. EPA has found that all agriculture, to some extent, is a source of water pollution, and it warns that steroid hormones found in CAFO waste can reach groundwater. Strong odors from CAFOs also can reduce property values of nearby homes, the federal agency found.
In Illinois, the state EPA estimates there are 3,200 CAFOs. It says it handles about one agricultural-related spill a month, an official said.

The agency is investigating whether a recent spill into the Sangamon River that killed 40,000 fish was from Stone Ridge Dairy, the state's largest, with 3,100 cows northwest of Champaign, Ill., spokeswoman Maggie Carson said.

Large CAFOs are held to higher regulatory standards than small farms, said Dick Breckenridge, Illinois' EPA farm liaison. For instance, he said, they have to file a detailed manure management plan. They also generally have more resources available to comply with the additional requirements, he added.

Republican State Rep. Jim Sacia grew up on a small dairy farm and represents the district where the proposed Tradition Dairy would be built. He said he's visited similar large dairies nationwide and considers them safe. He says he supports the dairy as a way to replace some of the 11,000 dairy cows Jo Daviess County has lost in the past two decades.

"Things grow or they die," he said. "The large dairies are a natural evolution."

The U.S. has lost millions of farms due to closures and consolidation since World War II, according to the USDA. But in recent years, massive operations such as the Bos CAFO and small farms have grown in number, while medium-sized farms are being squeezed out.

Economics force farmers to specialize in a higher-priced product, such as organics, or enlarge their operation to benefit from the economics of scale, said Mike Hutjens, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Large farms both displace some businesses and replace others that are long gone, Hutjens said.

The Bos farm won't be nearly big enough to reduce milk prices, Hutjens said. But bigger farms such as Tradition Dairy, he said, help sustain associated businesses such as processors and haulers that also help support smaller family farms.

Hutjens says he grew up on a small dairy farm run by his father, so he knows that some farmers resent large farms. But, he said, but they resent government regulation even more.
"Everybody would love to see cows grazing in the pasture," he said. "That's not where the industry is going."

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