Insult to Injury... Mega-Dairy Style

Editors Note: Remember John Crabtree? He was the keeper of the Blog for Rural America back in the dark ages of 2006 when we were over on blogspot. You can still read all of his pre-2007 posts over there. We are glad to have him back here today with a longer version of a Corporate Farming Note that will appear in our forthcoming newsletter. It is also an excellent post.

In Jo Daviess County, Illinois, a particularly disconcerting brand of corporate farming is coming to town.  Perhaps I am biased because I know so many dairy farmers in northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois, but I find the location of an 11,000 head (or more) mega-dairy so close to the heart of family farm dairy country the epitome of adding insult to injury.

Stop the Mega Dairy But wait a minute, let me back up a little and talk about how we got here.  Everyone thinks of Wisconsin when they think of dairy.  They even call their state “America’s dairyland” and put that slogan right on their license plates.  And, they wear foam cheese wedges on their heads at football games… not all of them, mind you, but enough to make the point.  They are proud of their heritage, as well they should be.

California has a lot of dairy cows too.  According to the California Department of Agriculture, in 2007 there were over 1.8 million dairy cows in 1,960 dairies in California making the Golden State the largest producer of milk in the country.  Wisconsin can only boast about 1.25 million dairy cows… on 14,170 farms.  Just to help with the math, all this comes to 925 cows per dairy in California and 88 cows per farm in Wisconsin.

Now California has never been able to match Wisconsin for dairy reputation.  Not enough Californians that will wear those cheese wedges on their heads, I guess.  But they keep trying.  If you go to the Happy Cows section of the Real California Milk website I highly recommend playing the downloadable Happy Cows Game, talk about your checkoff dollars at work.

Despite these efforts, the California dairy climate has declined somewhat in recent years.  In 1999 there were 2,200 dairies (with 1.5 million cows).  And in 2007 the number of dairies continues to slip from 1,982 to 1,960 dairies.  San Bernardino County alone lost 14 dairies last year.  Of course, San Bernardino County looks as big as Indiana on the map but still, the state is losing some dairies.  And one reason is that some of them are moving to other states.  The movers site development and regulatory pressure as the main reasons for relocating.

And that brings us back to A.J. Bos, the Bakersfield, California dairy magnate with a dairy empire of over 50,000 cows in multiple states, and Jo Davies County Illinois.  Bos is seeking to build two industrial dairy sites with at least 5,500 cows and heifers in Jo Daviess, about a mile from Nora, Illinois (population 200 or thereabouts).  Illinois law would allow him to double the number of cows at each site within two years, with no additional supervision, if the cost of the expansion is less than 50% of the initial cost of construction.  That could bring the Bos operation up to 22,000 cows.

If you are not familiar with the Illinois-Iowa-Wisconsin tri-state area, let me put it this way, residents of Jo Daviess County can stand in a field and throw rocks at Wisconsin residents.  I am not saying they would do such a thing, but they could.  Jo Daviess borders Wisconsin on the north and Iowa on the west (but in order to throw rocks at Iowans they would have to clear the Mississippi River, which would be no small feat).  And like their neighbors to the North and West, this is small farm country with their fair share of dairy farms.

Remember when I mentioned earlier that the average dairy farm in Wisconsin has 88 cows?  Well, this is where this story really goes off the rails for me.  An industrial dairy operation with up to 22,000 head of cows is a monster, no matter where you put it.  But as I said in the opening of this post, putting it so near the heart of America’s family farm dairy country is exceedingly insulting and injurious.

Despite stiff opposition from local residents, and an eleven to five vote earlier this year by the Jo Daviess County Board recommending that the Illinois Department of Agriculture deny the mega-dairy construction permit, Bos was able to convince the department to grant a construction permit for the site.

If you want to read more about this proposed, and some well placed acrimony, check out Peter Hardin in the June 2008 edition of The Milkweed.  As he describes it:

In truth, Nora-area residents probably face this invasion of California dairy resources because their neighborhood is so sparsely populated.  Illinois state rules require a 2420-foot set-back from homes, and a 4840-foot set-back from businesses, for dairies of the size proposed.  In rural Illinois, it’s hard to find enough acreage where lack of population density allows such set-backs.    

It’s one thing to talk about massive relocation of this nation’s food production from arid western deserts back to the Midwest and Plains – where water and grain are supposedly “cheap.”  But, practically speaking, as Nora area residents face the specter of many thousands of dairy animals literally in their back yards, serious questions arise.

Members of Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards (HOMES), a grassroots organization that sprang up in Nora, Illinois (population 200) and surrounding communities in opposition to the Bos mega-dairies, have filed for an injunction against the construction arguing that the Illinois Department of Agriculture wrongfully granted Bos the construction permit.  The village of Nora is less than one mile from the proposed mega-dairy site.

According to Hardin, Warren Goetsch – Bureau Chief of Environmental Program for the Illinois Department of Agriculture – has ultimate authority over the regulatory approval of Bos’ plans.  And Goetsch, under oath at a January 10, 2008 public hearing held at the Warren high school in Jo Daviess County, could not recall his agency ever having turned down an application for a large-animal facility.  It is an understatement to say that the HOMES folks have a long row to hoe.

Ken Turner, Warren, Illinois resident and mega-dairy opponent said it as well as any, “We have to fight for the right to breathe air and have drinkable water… This is not the ag you grew up with.  This is not the future of ag.”

Mr. Turner is right, of course, but what he and his neighbors are trying to accomplish may very well be the future of democracy in rural America.  And for that they deserve a look and a helping hand.

Think about it this way.  While the residents of Nora, Warren and Waddams Grove struggle to protect the air, water and quality of life in their communities, will Bos’ mega-dairy help drive 100 tri-state family farm dairy operations out of business, or just 50?

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