Sunday, March 27, 2005
Environment - In Ohio, One Farmer's Prosperity Is Another's Poison
SOUTH SOLON, Ohio - To Martin De Haan, central Ohio is the land of milk and honey, emphasis on the milk. A year ago, he fled the teeming shores of the Netherlands because he could not afford to expand his small dairy farm. Here, he found land that was cheap, lush, bountiful and, to his delight, almost hilly.
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But where Mr. De Haan envisions bovine splendor, some of his neighbors see the farming equivalent of a smoke-belching chemical plant. "These are not farms, they are factories," said Mary Pierce, 44, who lives down the road from Mr. De Haan. "And they should be regulated as such."
Ms. Pierce's protests are emblematic of a broader battle being waged in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan over a new generation of large animal farms, many owned by Dutch immigrants, that are pumping money into rural economies but also drawing sharp protests from environmental groups and homeowners concerned about water pollution, odors and land values.
Over the past seven years, more than 40 Dutch dairy farmers have moved to the region, driven out of the Netherlands by costly milk quotas, intense competition, tough environmental regulations and high land prices.
In America, the Dutch farmers, with the help of an Ohio-based company, have opened large farms that supporters say have helped revitalize the region's once proud and powerful dairy industry, whose steady decline in the 1990's hurt local crop farmers and milk processors.
"Our production and cow numbers have actually begun to increase because of these farms," said Tim Demland, executive director of the Ohio Dairy Producers. "They are vital to a rich Ohio tradition."
But critics say the farms, which typically have several hundred and sometimes thousands of cows, are an insult to another tradition: the small farm where herds of 60 to 150 cows graze on open grassland. The large farms, known as confined animal feeding operations, have too little acreage to allow grazing, produce more manure than they can handle and threaten to pollute aquifers, critics contend.
Last year the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued citations against 16 of the Dutch farms in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, asserting that they had violated clean-water regulations intended to prevent liquid manure and other wastes from leaching into waterways.
The Dutch farmers contend there is little evidence that their farms have contaminated wells or waterways, noting that they generally live on the farms and have a vested interest in keeping the water clean. But a Michigan group says it has documented dozens of manure and silage discharges into local streams; the discharges led to state action against Dutch farmers.
What perhaps riles opponents of the large farms most is their smell. Each farm is required to build ponds capable of storing millions of gallons of liquid manure until it can be spread on nearby crop fields. On warm summer days, those lagoons can advertise their existence for miles around, critics complain.
"Sometimes it will be so bad it will wake you up at night," said Diane Furbee, who with her husband runs a crop and beef-cattle farm in Madison County, Ohio, near a Dutch-owned farm with nearly 800 cows. "For God's sake, we farm," she said. "We know what manure smells like. But our air is so bad, we can't breathe." * * *
The farm is a model of high-tech efficiency. Inside one barn, computerized machines draw milk from 48 black-and-white Holsteins. When sensors tell the machines the milk is drained, the stalls open with a hydraulic whoosh and another 48 cows saunter in. Cows are milked three times a day, producing a daily average of 86 pounds each, said Pieter Assen, the family's youngest son, who runs the farm with his brother.
Outside is the 15-foot-deep, seven-million-gallon manure lagoon, which will be expanded to hold up to 24 million gallons. On a cold March day, the odor is slight. But Mr. Assen, who lives in a white house across the street, acknowledges it can occasionally be powerful. * * *
Groups opposing the large farms have sprung up across the region, demanding tougher regulatory oversight. One Ohio group, Citizens Against Mega Dairies, has filed a lawsuit demanding that the state's Department of Agriculture rescind a permit to one Dutch dairy on the ground that the department lacks the expertise to regulate such large industries.
Richard C. Sahli, an environmental lawyer representing the group, said that while the number of confined animal feeding operations has more than tripled in Ohio over the past decade, to about 140, the state has only a handful of inspectors to oversee their operations. "Ohioans are getting the rock-bottom minimum in protection," he said.