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Cow Country: The Rise of the CAFO in Idaho

As mega-dairies and feedlots make up more of Idaho's dairy industry, the conflicts between people and cattle are increasing



On a cool June day, Dean Dimond looked out from his back porch at a field of green wheat bending in the wind. Dimond lives on and farms a patch of land in the Magic Valley just north of Jerome. A mile or so beyond is Minidoka, site of the former Japanese internment camp where the National Park Service is building a memorial.

Dimond is, by any measure, an enormous man, with frying pan-sized hands that engulf yours in a handshake. He makes his living growing hay and corn for the dairies that populate this area where he has lived nearly all his life. It's a good place for this kind of farming. Three counties in the Magic Valley--Jerome, Gooding and Twin Falls--have the highest concentration of dairies in the state.

So you wouldn't expect Dimond--a self-described staunch Republican--to side with a movement to slow and even stop the expansion of large dairies. But as he looks over the field just feet from his back door, the contradiction begins to make sense.

Over the last two decades, the vision of a dairy has morphed from an idyllic setting to an industrialized, Henry Ford-like factory--the concentrated animal feeding operation. Under the logic of economies of scale, dairies and feedlots grew into expansive operations able to hold tens of thousands of animals.

The wheat field behind Dimond is not his, though you could toss a rock from the porch into its stalks. It belongs to South View Dairy, which for the last three years has fought to construct a 13,000-head feedlot on 240 acres one mile upwind of Minidoka and next to Dimond's home.

"There are a lot of good dairymen out there," said Dimond. "The dairy industry has been really good for this area. There are some that try to take care of their neighbors. But these guys just wanted to come in and build this mega-facility."

The fight over South View became so contentious that Jerome sheriff deputies used metal-detection wands to search the public for weapons before one hearing. During the hearing, a woman was led by a bailiff from the courtroom after refusing to yield the floor to the county commission chairman.

In many ways, South View is emblematic of what former Jerome County Commissioner Diana Obenhauer called a shift in public attitudes about CAFOs in their county.

While the dairy and beef industries are revenue generators for counties and financial bellwethers for the state--Idaho is the fifth-leading producer of milk and dairy products in the nation--many who live and work where CAFOs dominate the physical and environmental landscape are fighting for their property rights and better regulation of operations. And to make their voices heard.

"We all have cows. We all understand them," Dimond said. "But these things need to be located out and away where they can't affect people. These guys came in and wanted to put it right on top of us."

During the 1980s, an exodus of dairies from California reshaped Idaho. By 1997, income from dairy products exceeded those from the state's signature crop, potatoes. The next year, dairy outpaced both potatoes and beef. Dairy operators fleeing California's regulations found in Idaho a state with space and a welcoming attitude.

But the boom didn't translate into more dairies. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of dairies dropped from 1,952 to 648. During the same period, the amount of milk produced skyrocketed from just less than 3 billion pounds to 11 billion pounds.

What was once an industry of small farms has become dependent on CAFOs. The average herd size increased from 91 cows in 1991 to 783 in 2007. The decrease in dairies coupled with the increase in herd sizes puts more animals in fewer concentrated areas.

CAFOs' environmental impacts are evident. Putting 1,000-plus cows in a confined space produces an enormous amount of animal waste that often contains high levels of nitrates, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. If not properly handled, it can leach into surface and ground water. According to a 2006 paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, this happens all too often:

"Based on available data, generally accepted livestock waste management practices do not adequately or effectively protect water resources from contamination with excessive nutrients, microbial pathogens and pharmaceuticals present in waste."

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has found increasingly elevated nitrate levels in areas heavily populated with CAFOs. These levels are caused by fertilizer applications--including spraying of liquid manure onto fields--and "agricultural activities of confined animal feeding operations." High nitrate levels in water can cause brain damage in infants and has been associated with reproductive problems and cancer, according to researchers at Colorado State University.

According to the DEQ, nitrate is a concern because more than 95 percent of Idaho's drinking water comes from groundwater. The Magic Valley and its CAFOs sit on the Eastern Snake River Plain, the only source of drinking water for 200,000 people in Southern Idaho.

A 2009 DEQ study of the Springdale area in the Magic Valley found that nitrate concentrations "commonly exceed the maximum contamination level." While the study argues that the "emerging contaminants" are "still below human health concerns," it also identified the increase in nitrates from 1993 to 2001, which coincides with the growth of confined cattle. The report carefully hedged the causes of this increase, stating multiple times that "possible sources" include CAFOs and their practices.

However, DEQ cites two ISDA studies in 2003 and 2005 that it says "suggest a connection between agricultural land use and groundwater quality." According to the DEQ, there were roughly 14,000 confined animals within the 22,000 acres of Springdale. According to the 2000 census, Cassia County, where Springdale is located, had a human population of 21,416.

"[The ISDA studies] concluded that nitrate impacts to the shallow aquifer are widespread," the DEQ report stated, "and the leaching of animal waste and use of commercial fertilizers is the likely source of nitrate to ground water."

In 2006, the DEQ found "a statistically significant increasing nitrate trend" in Gooding County, ground zero for dairy CAFOs. A follow-up report in 2009 found that the largest "potential" sources of nitrogen were fertilizer applications (47 percent) and CAFOs (43 percent). The report estimated that dairy cattle produce 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen load a year, more than double the second-leading source, feedlot cattle (983,000 pounds). Like most studies, its recommendations are thread-bare: CAFOs should use "best management practices" to control the amount of nitrogen that reaches the aquifer and springs.

Lee Halper moved to Idaho in 1971 after living in "the filth and corruption" of New York City, Boston and New Jersey. In the late '80s, the Aardema Dairy--the largest dairy complex in the state--moved in over the aquifer that feeds his well. Over the next 25 years, the nitrate levels in his well increased from 1.4 milligrams per liter in 1989 to 7.28 in the fall of 2008. Levels rose as high as 11.02 in 2006. The federal maximum contamination level for nitrate is 10 milligrams per liter.

"There are good CAFO operators and there are bad," Halper said. "Combined with the corruption and ignorance of politicians, this allowance of free reign for 'jobs' is slowly ruining the aquifer, the soil, the roads, the air ... Idaho."

CAFOs also degrade air quality. A 2003 DEQ report on the Treasure Valley found that 64 percent of ammonia emissions came from livestock waste, the largest source. This DEQ study was significant because it contradicted previous environmental impact studies for a proposed 8,000-head dairy CAFO, which ISDA found would have a "minimal" impact on the environment.

If there's one criticism that residents and anti-CAFO activists alike have of ISDA (and there isn't just one), it's that the agency's interests and the interests of the industries it regulates overlap to the point of being indistinguishable at times.

If the word "gadfly" did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it to describe Alma Hasse. The executive director of Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment is also the woman who was kicked out of the South View hearing.

Alma and her daughter, Shavone, are the heart and brains of ICARE. I'm in a car with both as Alma exits I-84 just west of Twin Falls and exclaims, "It's Excrement Alley!"

That's Alma's nickname for Bob Barton Highway, which runs between the Interstate and the Snake River in the Magic Valley. It's also the prime spot for our "Shit Tour," a drive through an expanse of dairy and beef CAFOs tightly packed into the acreage on the north rim of the Snake River Canyon.

Like many in urban areas, my experience with agriculture ends with "Old McDonald." That bucolic idea has been tempered with second-hand knowledge: reading Michael Pollan, et al; watching Food, Inc. and various exposes. I expected a certain amount of disgust on the Shit Tour. Even my wildest urban imagination couldn't conjure Excrement Alley.

As we drive by a dairy CAFO, a 4-foot curving berm of cow shit follows along the fence line. Inside are pools of water with a glassy green-brown surface. Liquid shit. Jersey cows stand and lay under the sun. There's nothing green among the cows surrounded by dirt and dust, making it difficult to tell where the earth ends and the shit begins.

After an hour of this, my head begins to ache and my eyes water. It's not even dusk, when the cooling air brings the noxious gases closer to the ground.

As she drives, Alma points out piles of manure and waste lagoons--pits where liquid animal waste is collected until it can be sprayed on fields. A cow staggers through the muck, dazed by the sun.

ICARE is part of the coalition that temporarily stopped the proposed South View facility. Neighbors are still waiting on a ruling as to whether the CAFO can begin construction.

ICARE works with citizens and lobbies for better state regulations on CAFOs. Alma argues CAFOs are Idaho's top public-health threat, negatively affecting water, air and soil quality while making life unbearable for those who live near the largest operations.

"I wish I could charter buses and take the senators and representatives on a tour like this," she said. "And have them look me in the eye after and say that these facilities aren't having any impacts."

At the Snake River Canyon, we walk to the north rim. Hundreds of feet below, the Snake River runs turgid. Nothing breaks the surface of the solid green water.

We're standing on basalt, a porous rock through which surface water easily finds its way into the ground, the aquifer and, ultimately, the river. Thick strands of algae sway languidly. At a bend, the river is full of them, evidence of the elevated level of nitrate. An irrigation canal empties from the southern rim, shooting its water down into the Snake.

"That irrigation return line has probably snaked past no less than a dozen CAFOs," says Alma. "There's probably all kinds of stuff in there. You wouldn't want to drink it, swim in it."

Just months before, my wife and I took a backpacking trip through Hells Canyon, some 300 miles downriver. A park official warned us not to drink or eat anything out of the Snake, even if we boiled and filtered the water, because of all the CAFO run-off.

These are the macro effects. But living in close proximity to a high concentration of CAFOs comes with its own hazards, some of them due to the nature of the operations. Others are due to the nature of the operators.

Though ISDA is tasked with promoting the dairy and beef industries, it also regulates them, ensuring that dairy products are safe to eat and drink. ISDA is also responsible for regulating the health and environmental impact of operations that in many ways have become more like factories.

"We do have a dual role," said Brian Oakey, ISDA deputy director. "We promote agriculture, but we also regulate. We have to reconcile that in all of our programs. If we do not have a credible regulatory agency, then we can't promote the consumer confidence in those products. We view it not as a distinction between the two, but really one in the same. We're doing both: regulating and promoting."

Most people interviewed for this story don't share Oakey's confidence in ISDA. Diana Obenhauer, the former Jerome County commissioner, said ISDA "neglects" its regulatory responsibilities. "They don't do their job," she said flatly. Dean Dimond goes further.

"The Department of Ag is kind of a worthless organization," he said.

After Dimond complained to ISDA about a CAFO illegally pumping its waste, his name appeared in the letter to the operator, essentially outing him to the industry he depends on to make his living. The ISDA inspector for that region stopped taking Dimond's calls.

ISDA permits and inspects operations, collects fees, issues fines and monitors the environment and approves Orwellian-named documents called Nutrient Management Plans, which detail how each operation will safely hold and dispose of animal waste.

Activists point to these NMPs as proof of the industry's cozy relationship with state regulators. NMPs document the amount of waste CAFOs produce and how they handle it. Problems with waste containment lead to illegal discharges. But this information is kept secret from the public thanks to a change made during the last legislative session. The Idaho Legislature labeled stats on cow shit "proprietary information," exempt from public disclosure.

When asked what in an NMP could be considered a trade secret, Oakey said, "Well, I don't know. I'm not a feedlot operator, so I'm not qualified to answer that. We just implement that part of the statute."

Some of ISDA's more aggressive critics, like Obenhauer, question whether ISDA is doing its job. The fact that these NMPs are private worries ICARE and others who want to know what's going on next door. Their concern isn't necessarily whether ISDA is doing its job, it's whether they can trust the agency to look out for the best interests of all Idahoans. Hiding waste information behind the veil of "trade secrets" and stonewalling public information requests--ICARE needed a lawyer to review public documents--has eroded trust in ISDA.

Regulating beef and dairy CAFOs can be a dizzying job. If a CAFO is affecting air quality, making everything smell like cow shit, you have to file a complaint with ISDA ... unless it's fugitive dust (actual particles of shit). If it's dust, you call DEQ. If the CAFO is emitting ammonia, DEQ is your regulatory agency, unless it's a beef CAFO; ammonia emissions aren't subject to a CAFO permit. If a truck accidently dumps manure on your road, ISDA can take care of that, unless the manure came from a beef CAFO, which isn't subject to such strict regulations. If a CAFO discharges waste into stream that then finds its way into another body of surface water, both ISDA and EPA have dual regulatory authority.

Up until May 2009, the EPA had agreements with ISDA and both the beef and dairy industries that let ISDA carry out inspections for both the state and federal agencies. The agreements, called memorandums of understanding, were nationally lauded for being unique programs that eliminated the majority of illegal discharges.

But in 2009, the EPA backed out of both MOUs, worried that its agreement--one that essentially ceded its role of inspecting CAFOs to ISDA--would limit its authority to enforce the Clean Water Act. The EPA was also concerned about the close relationship between industry and ISDA.

"The industry that was supposed to be regulated was also the signatory on those MOUs," Nick Peak of the EPA said. "That was one of the primary concerns."

When the wind picks up in southern Jerome County, life becomes more difficult for Bill Jacob and his family. They are surrounded by three CAFOs in the same square mile and at least 10 within two miles. Dirt, dust and particulate matter--the polite name for pulverized cow shit--are lifted up on the wind and carried to Jacob's house. During the worst times of the year, they have to constantly spray and wash the house to keep the brown clouds from settling.

"The worst is when you get a big storm blowing through. You can literally see a wall of dirt coming. And it's not just dirt."

Jacob's son Kyle, whom he and his wife adopted, died of an asthma attack in March 2008, one of the windiest times of the year.

"We were getting hammered by crap blown off the dairy," he said. "[The cause of Kyle's death] was listed as 'environmental conditions.' But you know, I can't go out there and say there's a smoking gun."

Jacob said there is an "awful lot of evidence" that the dust from the dairies triggered Kyle's asthma attack. "But there's no way we can ever prove it," he said.

Kyle's 3-year-old half sister is already starting to show symptoms of asthma.

The Jacobs moved to their home in February 1993. Since then, the dairies have continually expanded, increasing the size of their herds and the by-products--animal waste--which bring their own set of problems.

"When you have such a tremendous supply of organic rotting material, the flies are phenomenal," said Jacob. "It can be horrendous, literally horrendous. We knew there were dairies in the area when we moved in. The problem is, it's getting worse."

Of all the counties that depend on the influx of CAFOs economically, Jerome County has a reputation as being especially dairy-friendly. When the Ted Miller Dairy on S. 500 Road decided to expand, residents near the dairy were notified of an upcoming public hearing where they would have a chance to give testimony about the proposed expansion.

"We were given virtually no notice," he said.

Jacob received his notification at the beginning of June. Jerome County had given them three-weeks notice of the hearing.

To submit written testimony, residents needed to file it and additional paperwork seven days before the hearing. But in order to give the necessary documents--records of past violations, siting information, correspondence between the dairy and the county commission--residents had to request public documents from DEQ and ISDA, which can take up to 10 days. In this case, the residents against the expansion--roughly 90 percent of the people who live in the area, according to Jacob--had to fight for the documents they needed to show that the Ted Miller Dairy didn't have the resources to handle more cows.

When Jacob got the notice, he called ICARE. Alma and Shavone, lawyer in tow, got the documents the residents needed.

"I give a lot of credit to ICARE," he said. "They pounded a lot of pavement really fast."

Still, residents were only able to submit a portion of the documents they wanted because of the tight deadline and short notification.

Roughly 25 homes around the dairy are one mile or less downwind. Many who live there, in homes built before the dairy moved in, are tied economically to the dairies of Jerome County, whether they work for them or supply them with things like feed.

That a dairy wanted to expand in an area already concentrated with CAFOs was a concern. But that the dairy was the Ted Miller Dairy was another issue. Just one of the 243 dairy CAFOs in Idaho, the Ted Miller Dairy has a curious story.

It began in19961980* as C Bar M, a 960-head dairy owned by Greg Ledbetter--who became Idaho's state veterinarian in 2005--and his wife Jane. ISDA records show five discharges or non-compliances in the past 10 years, a violation of the rules governing dairy CAFOs. In 2002 a waste lagoon overflowed, and in 2005 the dairy sprayed waste water from its lagoons on a county road. These types of violations usually point to a larger problem--too much waste and not enough storage capacity.

But the most egregious discharge came in 2008, when a C Bar M honey wagon (a large tanker that hauls liquid manure from lagoons to application fields) dumped its contents into a canal that flows directly into the Snake River. C Bar M was fined $5,800 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

This was the only time that C Bar M has been fined for an illegal discharge. While ISDA had previously fined the dairy for failing to vaccinate more than 100 calves against brucellosis, it has never levied a fine against Ledbetter for the dairy's numerous non-compliances.

After the EPA fine, C Bar M changed its name to the Ted Miller Dairy.*

Multiple calls to the number listed for the Ted Miller Dairy were not answered.

At the late-June public hearing, most of the people who live near the dairy spoke against the expansion. According to Jacob, the only people in favor of the expansion were Ted Miller employees and the dairy's lawyer.

"There's really nobody here who is anti-dairy, saying CAFOs should be eliminated," Jacob said. "They're for people making money. People need to make money, but they need to do things in a manner that's legal, and in a manner that's going to make a sustainable industry."

Almost all of the people interviewed for this story agree on one thing: Idaho needs its dairies. The majority make their living from agriculture and are adamant about the fact that most operators do a good job raising their animals and working with neighbors.

Ballard Farms is one such operator. It holds roughly 85 cows and milks 60 to 70. Because the cows are kept in an open lot, or corral, it's classified as a CAFO. Because of its small herd size, Ballard Farms doesn't have a major lagoon system for cow waste. Instead, it composts manure during the summer and fall.

"Everyone I talk to in the dairy industry tries to do the right things," said Steve Ballard. "We try to talk to our neighbors and make sure everything is going well with them, that we're not a nuisance to them."

Ballard said that if his irrigation equipment sprays the dirt road the farm shares with a neighbor, creating ruts, he will come back and grade the road.

Meanwhile, many of Ted Miller Dairy's neighbors have had to spend $5,000 to $8,000 to re-drill wells because of the growing water use, Jacob said.

His family has felt the impact of living close to so many CAFOs more personally and profoundly. But moving away from a CAFO is a complicated and money-losing proposition. CAFOs and their smell, dust, noise and flies are hell on property values. Moving often means taking a huge financial hit, one many can't afford.

Johnstone Road in Owyhee County is almost as rocky as the mountains that serve as its backdrop. Countless tankers and trucks have taken their toll. Half-ruined county roads, beat up by the constant and heavy traffic moving animals and waste, are a reality of living near CAFOs.

When I find Helen Kettle, she's trimming the branches of trees that line the dirt path from Johnstone to her farm. A retired EMT, Kettle's face shows the years she's spent under the sun riding horses and working her farm.

"I thought I'd be here forever," she said later as we walked out toward the property line she shares with Wilke Feedlot, a 9,000-head heifer-replacement CAFO. Kettle and her then-husband bought the land in 1979 and built the house where she lives in 1983.

A berm separates Kettle's property from Wilke. Whether the pile of dirt, manure and rocks constitutes a berm has been a contentious source of debate and bureaucratic wrangling for years. On top of the berm sit two porcelain toilets left by the CAFO's owner. They are not Duchamp art-school odes.

Just over the barbed-wire fence and dirt berm are the cows, hundreds of them. Like in the CAFOs from the Shit Tour, manure is stacked nearly 10 feet high. The piles--"cow condos" in the vernacular--are so large that some heifers lay on them, sunning themselves.

For more than four years, Kettle has tried to sell her place after a series of incidents with the Wilke CAFO. After Wilke's water and manure flooded her property in 2005, a conditional use permit issued by Owyhee County required Wilke to build an engineered berm to divert waste water from the property line.

The nature of the thing that sits along the fence line is debatable. It's essentially a long pile of dirt and gravel meant to keep water from running 20 feet from the cow pens onto Kettle's property. Whether an engineer designed the berm is also debatable.

Then there are the toilets. They appeared after Kettle complained to Southwest District Health that Wilke employees had been hopping the berm and defecating on her property.

According to both Kettle and Alma Hasse, when the two were walking along the fence and taking pictures of the toilets, the owner harassed them and threatened to take Hasse's camera from her. Both women left shaken.

"You think of the word 'neighbor,' the term makes you think friendly or caring about another human being," Kettle said. "This is certainly not them, and I wouldn't call them neighbors."

When asked via e-mail about the toilets, berm and relationship with the farm's neighbors, a Wilke representative, who repeatedly declined to be named, sent this two-sentence statement:

"The berm is approved, meets required government specifications and has never failed, and any claims otherwise are incorrect. We adhere to, and are in compliance with, all State and Federal mandates and strict environmental regulations."

The representative did not answer questions about the toilets.

After the 2005 discharge, Kettle said Wilke paid her $6,000 for a new well pump and trees to plant along the property line. Wilke was also fined $5,000 by ISDA, but only paid $500 of the fine; the rest was held in abeyance, to be levied in the future if necessary. Oakey said that holding the majority of fines in abeyance is "not an uncommon practice."

"Paying a fine doesn't do anything to protect the neighbor from future discharges," said Oakey. "But if there's $4,500 in looming penalty money ... they tend to get done."

While that may be true, in Kettle's case, there's the issue of the berm. It needed to be installed by Dec. 31, 2005, by NRCS standards and approved by ISDA. On the day that I visited Kettle in early July, neither of these things had been done. Two weeks later, when I spoke with ISDA officials, the berm had been approved, even though there was never any evidence of engineering documents.

Why did it take five years for ISDA to approve the berm while holding the vast majority of Wilke's fine in abeyance?

"I don't have a good answer for that," said Marv Patton, the chief of the ISDA Dairy and Egg bureau. "I think there was some confusion."

Back in Jerome County, the Dimonds are still waiting to see if they'll be living next to a CAFO. If South View is built, the Dimonds aren't sure if they'll be able to stay in their home of 12 years.

"I just don't think I'd want to live in this house," he said, sitting at the kitchen table, a glass pitcher of pink lemonade his wife Eden just made in front of him, untouched. "I know it's not huge and fancy, but it's ours."

In the other room, a boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, wakes up from a nap on the couch. He's their youngest and was born premature. The Dimond's pediatrician told them that they can't live next to something like a CAFO. His lungs couldn't handle it.

"If it goes in," said Eden with a sigh, "nobody would want to buy our house. But we couldn't live here."

*CORRECTION: The C Bar M dairy began operations in 1980, not 1996, as the story previously reported. It changed its name to the Ted Miller Dairy in 2003.

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