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The big stink

More milk means more manure — and a threat to a way of life.

All photos by Ann Mullen
Dairy cows are milked three times daily.
Farm waste sometimes runs into ditches and creeks.
Brad Hart (center) with his son Brock and father Phil.
Dr. Leland Wolf moved after learning a huge dairy farm would be built behind his home.
Farm waste is stored in large open pits called lagoons.
Lynn Henning fears farm waste will polute drinking water.
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Published 7/4/2001

In black rubber boots and blue jeans, Brad Hart traipses through puddles of rain and cow manure that have accumulated on the cement floor of his new steel barn. Hundreds of cows line each side of the large building as he makes his way between them. He points at a 1,700-pound cow.

“She’s chewing her cud,” says Hart smiling. “That’s good. It means she’s making milk.”

Making milk is what the 44-year-old dairy farmer is all about. Like four generations before him, Hart has spent his life milking cows and raising crops in Hudson Township, a small rural community in Lenawee County about two hours southwest of Detroit.

He hopes to pass the farm on to his four boys. To make this possible, Hart did what many Michigan dairy farmers have had to do: get bigger.

Dairy farmers around the state have had their share of hard times. To stay afloat financially, Hart recently expanded his herd from about 100 cows to 700, radically changing the way things have been done at Hartland Farms since his family started it in 1836.

Cows that once grazed are fed carefully planned diets indoors. Computers track the herd’s health and milk production. And as hoped, both production and Hart’s income have increased.

The new way of operating has also come with challenges, not the least of which is his neighbors’ response to the expansion — and the more than 3 million gallons of manure and other waste the dairy farm produces annually. Particularly on hot, humid summer days, neighbors complain about the intense odor from a 300,000-square-foot, concrete-lined pit — commonly called a lagoon — that stores manure, water and other farm waste until it can be used to fertilize crops.

The odor is just part of what concerns Hart’s neighbors about a trend that threatens to change the way of life in rural communities. Hudson residents also fear that the 12-foot-deep lagoon — and others on seven new and expanding dairy farms recently built in the area — may contaminate the soil, air and drinking water. Some banded together to monitor the farms, filing complaints with state and local agencies about the odor and manure spills. The group quickly learned that little can be done to keep farmers in check since Michigan has virtually no laws regulating livestock farms — of any size or kind.

Even Hart, who was the target of heavy criticism after his farm polluted a nearby creek and lake last year, says some of his neighbors’ concerns are justified. But he also says that this battle — being played out in a number of rural communities around the state, sometimes over pig farming, sometimes over dairy farms — has gone too far.

The Hudson-area dispute has turned neighbors into foes. Protest signs dot yards. There have been allegations of harassing phone calls and sabotage. Some residents are pushing the state to take a firm regulatory hand. Others, like Hart, warn that strict oversight will financially strap family farmers and drive them out of business.

All this in a town where the sign at the city limits reads: “Happiness is Hudson.”

Making a living

Hart watches a veterinarian examine one of his cows. Arms folded on his paunch, the stocky man with a trim brown beard explains that each animal wears a device around its neck to monitor movements. This poor girl didn’t move much that day, so Hart called the vet. The cow has pneumonia and will be isolated until she is well.

Making sure his animals are healthy is critical to Hart’s operation. Cattle live in close quarters, and one sick cow could infect other ones.

Hart’s cows are confined to sand beds where they stand, sleep and eat side by side. Three times a day, the farmer and his crew herd the animals to the nearby milking “parlor.” Each one is hooked up to a machine that pumps their udders for a little more than six minutes. The milk drains into steel pipes, is cooled and stored in a giant refrigerator; each day, about 6,300 gallons are pumped out, trucked away and sold.

Hart is proud of his new — and profitable — operation. But some years Hart struggled to survive. In 1996 and the following year, he didn’t earn enough to replace worn-out equipment, strapped by production costs that kept rising while milk prices held steady. He faced a decision: fold up or expand.

In 1998, Hart remortgaged his home and land to build the new barn and lagoon, lease 600 more acres and buy more cows at about $1,600 a head.

The investment paid off. Annual production increased from 340,000 gallons to 2 million gallons. And thanks to technological improvements and economies of scale, the cost of producing each gallon of milk dropped.

“We had five full-time people with 100 cows. Now, counting my wife and I, we have 12 full-time employees milking 700 cows,” Hart says. “You tell me which one is more efficient.”

And increased efficiency translates into higher profits. Hart won’t say what he earns, but is optimistic about his family’s future.

“I’d like to make the opportunity for my sons to farm,” he says.

Disappearing dairies

Not all farmers in Hudson are doing so well. Hart says that many take jobs in town to keep their business afloat, a trend he laments.

When Hart graduated from Hudson High School in 1972, he was one of seven students whose dads farmed full time in a class of 125 students. Now, Hart’s oldest boy, Brock, is the only one in a high-school class of 120 whose dad farms full time, he says.

Statistics tell a similar story. About 25 years ago, the state had 12,000 dairy farms; last year there were 3,500, according to the USDA.

Meanwhile the trend in Michigan — and the country — over the past 20 years has been for dairy farms to get bigger, says Elwood Kirkpatrick, president of the Michigan Milk Producers, a cooperative that markets milk for dairy farmers.

“Agriculture is a tight industry in terms of profits,” he says. “So you have to continue to get larger and efficient to be profitable.”

One facet of modern dairy efficiency is that cows now produce more than they did 20 years ago. Despite a decrease from roughly 400,000 cows in 1980 to 300,000 today, Michigan’s $9 billion-a-year dairy industry remains one of the top 10 in the nation because each cow delivers about 800 gallons of milk more per year than it did two decades ago.

And as cows generate more milk they also generate more manure. An average cow now puts out about 120 pounds of waste a day — equal to about 20 people. Compounding the problem is the fact that consolidation has created farms with vastly larger herds, resulting in much higher concentrations of manure.

“No Mega Farms”

Near Hart’s barn is his lagoon, nearly filled with manure, water used to hose down the milking parlor and barn, and other farm waste. The massive pit, which takes about five months to reach capacity, holds up to 3.2 million gallons of waste. A truck that looks like an oil tanker pumps out the liquid material and injects or sprays it on Hart’s 2,000 acres of corn, hay and soybean fields. On cool, wet spring days, the stench is strong. And when it’s hot and windy, it travels.

“Some days you can’t even go outside, the smell is so bad,” says Lynn Henning. Her husband Dean has lived and farmed next to Hart all his life; Lynn moved there when she and Dean married 23 years ago. Before the expansion, Hart and the Hennings were good friends; Dean had even worked for Hart. But when the two families talk now, it’s to argue about the odor, the lagoon or how Hart is applying the manure to his crops.

It’s not only Hart’s farm that frustrates the Hennings. Within about a 10-mile radius there are seven other dairies, that range from about 400 to 2,800 cows, each farm with its own lagoon of waste.

That’s too much waste concentrated in the area, say the Hennings and other irate residents. When manure is applied to too little land, crops can’t absorb it and the waste runs off fields into county drains, rivers and lakes. Lenawee and Hillsdale, bordering counties where the eight farms sit, host two watersheds and five rivers. Some residents fear farmers may oversaturate the soil and pollute the land and waterways.

One fear is that what happened in Walkerton, Canada, could happen in their community. In the small Ontario town, which is the site of several dairy farms, seven people died and 2,300 became ill last year after drinking water polluted with E. coli, a bacteria contained in cow manure. Cow manure washed into a nearby well after a heavy rain, causing the health crisis, says Peter Rehak, spokesperson for the Walkerton Inquiry, a public commission established to investigate the tragedy.

Last year, Hudson had a little scare of its own. City officials told residents to boil all water before drinking because it allegedly contained bacteria. Henning and others are still trying to get answers from state and local officials about what was in the water and how it got there.

Hudson city manager Mark Knoblauch says that the water contained coliform, a benign bacteria, and that the problem had nothing to do with dairy farms. He says that the city water supply, which begins 30 feet below the earth’s surface, is not near any of the dairy farms and is “virtually impermeable.”

Still, Knoblauch says the incident highlights what has become “a very nasty struggle in a small community.”

About 18 months ago, 50 or so folks in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties joined to form the watchdog group Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. Lynn Henning is the vice president. When she’s not tending to her family’s 150 acres of soybeans and corn, the short, plump woman with a mane of wavy gray hair, drives her red 1989 Ford pickup through the county to keep an eye on the large farms with the giant white steel structures that may be replacing the red-painted wood barn as the symbol of America’s heartland.

Small signs standing in a couple crop fields along the road read, “No Mega Farms.” Henning’s group made 500 of them, but some neighbors have taken theirs down, fearful of retaliation; others have been stolen, she says. Henning has a large hand-painted one in her front yard. She suspects the sign and her involvement with the environmental group is why she gets several crank phone calls a week and her farm equipment was mysteriously damaged last fall.

But the 43-year-old mother of two, who has never before taken up a social cause, won’t be steered off course. Each week she spends hours filing complaints about the farms with local and state officials, attending meetings, putting out the group’s newsletter and tooling around in her truck checking out the farms.

Some Hudson residents call Henning when they suspect a dairy farmer of applying too much manure to crops or polluting waterways. Henning rushes to the scene photographing fields saturated with pools of waste, manure running onto roads and rank brown liquid bubbling in streams and creeks.

At her kitchen table, she pores over the photos and a stack of records that her organization collected from state and local agencies the past year. According to the documents, this is what the group found:

· Last year, New Flevo Dairy, Inc. dumped 2,300 gallons of milk into a nearby creek;

· Stoutcrest Farms applied manure to frozen fields last winter. The manure ran off into a ditch and nearby creek;

· Jelsma Dairy applied manure on a frozen field in February. The manure leaked into the county drain;

· Bruinsma Dairy’s leaked animal feed into a creek last fall; the water’s surface was coated with a white, foamy mold.

But none of these spills compare to the one that happened on Hart’s farm.

The big spill

Last year, a resident called the Lenawee County drain commission after he noticed waste leaking into Bear Creek. County staff traced it a mile north to Hart’s farm. Hart assumed that the lagoon was damaged and seeping into the county drain, which runs under his farm and to the creek. The anxious dairy farmer dug around the pit’s concrete lining, searching for a fissure.

While looking for the breach, he pumped the waste out of the lagoon onto his crop field for two days, hoping to prevent more manure from seeping into the drain. This only made matters worse.

Hart later realized that the problem wasn’t the lagoon, but the parched soil. The field was too dry to absorb the manure, which quickly ran 30 inches through the cracked earth to the farm irrigation system that connects to the county drain and Bear Creek.

But the trouble didn’t end at the creek. Within days the small rural community was buzzing with talk of 400,000 gallons of manure and other farm waste drifting into Lake Hudson. Hart, who served on the local school board and sponsored baseball teams, was pelted with questions and criticism.

“I was taking heat from Hennings’ group and everyone was saying, ‘What’s going on?’”

Residents pressured Hart to pump the lake clean. He says he was willing, but couldn’t get assurances from public officials about what to do with the water once he removed it.

“We tried to get someone to sign something telling us what to do, and no one would sign it,” says Hart.

The dairy farmer says he takes full responsibility for the accident and vows not to repeat it. “I’m proud of what we do here,” says Hart, who even gives tours to skeptical neighbors. “I have nothing to hide.”

But he insists that less than 5,000 gallons of waste water polluted Lake Hudson, though state officials estimate that it was about 400,000 gallons. Whatever the amount, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality testing showed that the E. coli count was as high as 87,000 colonies per 100 milliliters of water in some parts of the lake; 300 per 100 milliliters is considered normal, says Shannon Briggs, DEQ toxicologist. The high count could potentially cause eye infections, diarrhea and sore throats, she says. It would be two months before testing showed normal levels again.

It isn’t just Hart that folks are angry about. They’re also frustrated the state doesn’t do more to prevent Hart and other farmers from making similar mistakes.

Who’s watching?

“No one’s monitoring them,” grouses John Klein, a neighbor to a massive Hillsdale County dairy operation and president of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. He’s referring not only to the farm near him but to the large dairy and hog farms around the state.

The crux of the problem, he says, is that the Michigan Department of Agriculture has the dual roles of “regulator and marketer.” When its job of protecting the environment clashes with that of promoting agribusiness, the environment loses, critics say.

The Department of Agriculture neither routinely inspects lagoons nor tests the groundwater around them to ensure compliance with the state’s voluntary guidelines. The seven days that the state is allowed to investigate complaints means that smells have subsided or leaks are often repaired before an inspector shows up. And though the Department of Agriculture refers some cases to the Department of Environmental Quality — cases deemed emergencies or where laws may have been broken — critics say the DEQ is similarly lax.

To make matters worse, last year local communities lost the ability to regulate large farms through zoning ordinances. Following heavy pressure from Michigan’s $37.5 billion agricultural industry, Lansing lawmakers amended the state’s Right to Farm Act to supersede local laws. Frustrated environmentalists have responded by going to court, which sometimes prods state officials to act more aggressively. Environmentalists have also called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1999, for instance, the Sierra Club sued Walnutdale Farms, Inc., located south of Grand Rapids, for allowing manure to leak into a nearby county drain and creek three times. In addition to forcing the farm to comply with state and federal laws prohibiting discharges into public waters, the Sierra Club says the suit spurred DEQ to act, levying a $422,000 fine.

“By taking action against the facility, the DEQ is stepping up enforcement,” says Anne Woiwode, Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter state director. “We can’t sue everyone, but when we do, they (DEQ) pay attention.”

Although the DEQ technically could issue federal permits laying out how farms store and use manure, it refuses to do so, to the consternation of Woiwode and others.

DEQ officials maintain that Michigan law prohibits waste disposal into public waters — period. “We don’t issue permits because the standard is no discharges,” says DEQ environmental quality specialist Teresa Seidel.

What’s absent from the DEQ’s logic, says a Sierra Club spokesperson, is that manure continues polluting our waterways, and the state isn’t doing anything about it.

In response, the Sierra Club and two other environmental groups have asked the EPA to revoke the state’s authority to issue operation permits so that the federal agency can assume the responsibility.

After reviewing 48 livestock farm complaints and interviewing DEQ staff, the EPA concluded that Michigan’s program is “seriously lacking,” from the monitoring of large farms to adequately investigating complaints.

An EPA decision is pending, says Steve Jann, an environmental scientist for EPA Region Five, which includes Michigan and five other Midwest states. Of those, only Michigan, he notes, has refused to issue permits for large livestock farms.

If the EPA does usurp Michigan’s permit authority, says Jann, the impact would be far-reaching, affecting every industry that discharges waste in public waters — from automakers to chemical companies.

‘Russian roulette’

The Department of Agriculture and the DEQ are approaching the large farm problem with a new system called the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. It was developed over the last two years and is currently being tested on 25 livestock operations. The program educates farmers about manure pollution and how to prevent it, provides on-site technical assistance, ensures compliance with accepted practices and certifies those who pass inspection. But, as with the state’s current system, compliance is voluntary and penalties are absent. “Michigan is playing Russian roulette,” says Patty Cantrell, of the Michigan Land Use Institute. “It is counting on these operations to do the right thing, and our experience is that it hasn’t been working.”

Some observers say that in terms of pollution and environmental damage, this emphasis on large farms is misguided.

“The smaller farms, some of them, have chronic discharges, and over time can be damaging to the environment,” says Sandra Batie, a Michigan State University professor of agricultural economics. She says that not enough research has been done to compare the cumulative damage done by small farms to large ones and their “occasional catastrophic discharges.”

No one in the country knows more about these catastrophes than folks in North Carolina where an above-ground lagoon burst a wall in 1995, sending a 25-million gallon lake of hog manure oozing across the countryside. The spill — about twice the size of the Exxon-Valdez deluge — wiped out aquatic life along 20 miles of river. Two years later, lawmakers passed a moratorium on new and expanded livestock farms and required permits for farms with more than 250 hogs.

Even in North Carolina, critics say government hasn’t stepped up to the task. “There are just too many operations and never enough money to monitor 4,000 lagoons,” says Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club director in the state.

Leaving home

Dr. Leland Wolf stands in his empty garage with his 10-year-old son, Chris. The family practitioner tells a gathering of about 60 people why he left the rural community where six generations before him farmed since 1855.

The group is on a “manure tour” of Lenawee and Hillsdale counties that the Sierra Club and Concerned Citizens organized last month. They are traveling through the area on four buses to view the mega-farms and hear how they have changed the landscape.

About 15 folks have come from as far as northern Ohio, where large dairy farms are also springing up; they want to know what to expect in their rural communities. If Wolf’s story is any indication, they may be in for some tough times.

Like his father and grandfather, Wolf intended to spend his final days in Hillsdale County. When he learned that a 3,200-cow dairy farm — the largest yet in the area — was going up behind his brick, ranch home he packed up his wife and four kids and moved about 40 minutes away last winter.

Wolf first heard about the large dairy farms — and the stench and flies that come with them — from some of his patients.

“No one said a good thing about them,” he says.

After graduating from Wayne State University medical school in 1983, the reserved doctor set up a family practice about eight miles from where he grew up. Listening to his patients, Wolf wondered how the mega-farms might change the area.

He says he spends countless hours reading about mega-farms, attending local meetings, writing editorials and giving talks like the one today. Wolf has never been what he calls a “cause chaser,” but this issue has gotten to him.

He ticks off a list of health problems large livestock farms may cause. He is most concerned about how they sometimes exacerbate respiratory infections. His 13-year-old daughter has asthma; he didn’t want to take any chances.

But he hasn’t had much luck selling his home, which sits empty when the manure tour stops to hear him. He doesn’t expect to get what it’s worth. There have been few prospective buyers.

“I’ve been forced out of a place I always knew was home,” he says, choking up. Chris looks up at his dad and also begins to cry.

“My children left their school and friends; we left our church and community,” says Wolf.

Hart, who graduated from Hudson High School with Wolf, has scrapped with his former neighbor about their opposing views of megafarming. Hart says Wolf’s decision to leave the community is one only he can make. He understands that a father of four must do what’s best for his family. For Hart, it’s dairy farming.

Read more about Ann Mullen's investigation in "Hog hell" and "Dutch lessons."

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to amullen@metrotimes.com.

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