BAKERSFIELD — James and George Borba thought they were giving residents of Kern County just what they wanted.
Invited by county officials into this rich agricultural valley, the Chino dairymen were impressed by what they saw: vast expanses of inexpensive farmland, a local government traditionally friendly to agriculture, and practically no neighbors in sight of their 4,700 acres south of the city limits.
"It's a perfect place to build a dairy: out in the middle of nowhere," George Borba said last spring.
But the Borba cousins soon discovered that there may no longer be such a place as the middle of nowhere, at least not in the rapidly urbanizing Central Valley. Especially if you're moving in with 28,572 Holstein cattle.
Their proposed dairy is 2 1/2 miles from Bakersfield's city line, but that's too close for many residents of the city's new southwestern housing developments. Homeowners have organized against the dairy, concerned that manure dust might blow across playgrounds and that real estate values might fall.
Much more is at stake, though, than local interests. The Borbas' foray into Kern County is being watched closely by dairy operators, environmentalists and public officials across the state. California surpassed Wisconsin last decade as the nation's leading milk producer, and other Southern California firms also are eyeing the Central Valley for future expansion.
In Bakersfield, the Borba dairy controversy has turned into a debate over the city's identity, with agricultural preservationists and slow-growth advocates taking issue with pro-development forces and some newer residents.
Residents convened an emergency meeting last month at a southwest school auditorium, and George and James Borba attended to answer questions.
The mood quickly turned ugly. One by one, homeowners stood up to attack the dairy plan.
"They can say anything they want," said David Earl, an insurance man who moved from Los Angeles to Bakersfield five years ago, "but they're not going to reimburse me when I can't sell my house."
In a few short hours, the Borbas saw their dreams flicker. "I'm disappointed," said James Borba. "What disappoints me is that people didn't want to listen and they already made up their minds. It's been a real shock."
In recent weeks, the Borbas withdrew their proposal from consideration by the Kern County Board of Supervisors, and they waited for the holidays to pass before reentering the public forum.
This month, they plan to mount an information campaign touting the proposed dairy's impact on the local economy--bringing $180 million in annual revenues, according to one study--and will attempt to allay concerns that odors, flies and truck traffic will disrupt residential areas.
The Borbas are the bellwethers in a shift of dairy operators from the Chino basin--the region east of Los Angeles that has been the seat of California's dairy industry--into the Central Valley. Crowded out by encroaching development and tempted by soaring real estate values to sell their farms, some Chino dairy operators are leaving for Tulare, Kings, Kern and Fresno counties.
And they are discovering a new era of regulation and public scrutiny as valley communities grapple with environmental concerns such as the potential contamination of ground and surface waters and the cumulative effects on air quality in a region already violating federal clean air standards.
This new awareness has been driven, in part, by the sheer size of the new projects.
The proposed Central Valley dairies are the largest ever seen in the state. The biggest of these would be in Kings County, where the J.G. Boswell Co. has proposed a 55,196-cow complex on 7,000 acres, to be parceled off and sold to incoming dairy operators.
The dairies have drawn attention in Sacramento, where state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who ran on promises of a more environmentally active Department of Justice, has begun to fulfill that mandate. This year, Lockyer sued Tulare County to stop construction of two proposed dairies. His staff has met with county officials across the valley to notify them that he intends to vigorously enforce the California Environmental Quality Act.
As the lead agencies charged with enforcing the act, county governments already have begun responding. Kings and Tulare counties are redrawing general plans and considering new regulations governing large animal feed operations. Both counties have commissioned general environmental impact reviews that will suggest new environmental measures for future dairies.
Meanwhile, an independent watchdog group, the San Francisco-based Center for Poverty, Law and the Environment, sued the Borbas and the Boswell company. In settlements, both operators agreed to commission environmental impact reviews for their dairies.
The Borba environmental review was the first ever commissioned for a dairy in California. Released in the spring, it detailed for the first time the magnitude of the proposed operation, which set off the political firestorm in Kern County.
"There's been a change in attitude," said Loron Hodge of the Kern County Farm Bureau, who is somewhat shaken by the public backlash and concerned that farmers are being made scapegoats.
"We don't have the degree of support by the citizens we've traditionally had," he said. "Change is inevitable, and most farmers in business today understand that. Nobody disagrees that they are going to have to do it right. But it gets pretty hard when you get hit from all sides."