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Air of Unease Over Big Dairies

Sacramento Valley groups are raising a stink to keep more farms from moving in.

September 10, 2004|Brian Melley | Associated Press

DIXON, Calif. — Alongside Interstate 80, a sign for the Milk Farm restaurant stands as a landmark for when this Sacramento Valley community was known as Dairy City and diners guzzled all-you-can-drink milk for a dime.

But those days are long gone since the cafe closed, and some of the dairies that gave the city its distinction have dried up.

With the arrival of a 3,000-cow farm outside city limits two years ago, Dixon now finds itself joining its neighbors in saying no to so-called mega-dairies that are blamed for pollution and a stench powerful enough to knock a buzzard off a manure wagon.

With only two big dairies in the Sacramento Valley, environmentalists are using tactics they employed to stall dairy construction in the San Joaquin Valley to halt the northward migration of cows, and government is getting in on the act, considering stiffer regulations and even a moratorium on large dairies.

After Heritage Dairy spewed 1.3 million gallons of manure into waterways leading to the Sacramento River in November, environmentalists launched attacks in Solano and Yolo counties to stem the flow of dairies into the region from places such as Southern California, where they are being displaced by housing.

Leading the charge in litigation is attorney Brent Newell, a veteran of the San Joaquin dairy wars who is opposed to what he calls animal factories.

"I used to use the term 'factory farm,' but these things don't deserve to have 'farm' involved," he said. "It's industrial in efficiency and scale. When you compare the amount of pollution that comes out of them, they produce pollution like any other industry. It's not agriculture anymore."

Milk remains the leading commodity in the nation's most productive agricultural state, but the scale at which it is being produced has raised objections from community groups and environmentalists, who have sued to stop massive projects of as many as 10,000 cows.

Besides attracting flies and creating a stink, opponents say, manure pollutes air and water.

Farmers object to such claims, saying that pollution figures are based on outdated science. They say they need more cows to make a profit.

For example, Tulare County, the nation's biggest dairy county, had 63,000 cows on 230 farms in 1970, an average of 274 cows per farm. In a 2002 survey, it had 395,984 cows at 313 dairies, or 1,265 cows.

"I think when you hear those big numbers it scares people," said David Albers, a third- generation dairyman and a lawyer for many of the dairies being targeted. "It's hard to defend, because you can't understand where people are coming from. It's bad that people think dairies are polluters and bad people, and they're not."

On behalf of the Sierra Club, Newell filed notice in Sacramento federal court in January to sue Heritage Dairy for its spill. After state regulators stepped in and fined the dairy $90,000, he said, he refrained from suing.

Last month Newell filed a Sierra Club lawsuit against the Yolo County Board of Supervisors for approving the expansion of the 1,500-cow Cache Creek Dairy outside of Woodland. The suit, pending in Yolo County Superior Court, claimed that the board failed to follow stricter rules it established for new and expanding dairies in 2000 after Jack Kasbergen moved his operation there from New Mexico.

The suit seeks to force the county to require a permit that would trigger an extensive environmental review. Sierra Club members said they wanted to deter other big dairies from moving to the area.

"When you have something going on with industrial ramifications, it is not the kind of agriculture we try to promote," said Susan Pelican, a Sierra Club member who lives on a rice farm near the dairy.

Kasbergen declined to comment, but Albers, his lawyer, said that the suit was without merit and that the Sierra Club was trying to get headlines.

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