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Factory Farms, Dirty Water and the Bible

How one unlikely state became an industrial dairy magnet and the environmental and social repercussions that resulted.
 
 
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Just an hour west of Texas, the gentle swells of New Mexico's high plains calm to a pancake flat sea of grass. Crossing into Curry and Roosevelt counties at the state's eastern edge, the empty landscape, broken only by the occasional grain elevator and abandoned village, quickly gives way to a discomfiting motion. Strung out along the highway's edge in a nearly unbroken chain are cow pens filled with thousands of black and white Holsteins slithering in the summer heat like giant schools of beached eels.

Got milk? Eat Taco Bell cheese? Slurp Yoplait yogurt? Chances are pretty good this is where the main ingredient comes from. Curry and Roosevelt counties now enjoy the dubious distinction of being at the heart of the Great American West's dairy industrial complex. With barely 20,000 dairy animals in 1992, the two counties now feed, milk, and clean up after 120,000 cows at 58 operating dairy farms, a number that by all accounts will double in a few short years. And to sop up all this milk (only 30% is used for fluid consumption), Curry County is now home to North America's largest cheese plant, which extrudes a Velveeta-like product at the rate of one truckload per hour.

What do these many farms do to a place? At four tons of manure per cow annually, 120,000 cows produce as much excrement as the city of Los Angeles. The odor in the surrounding communities is bad enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon, and the hordes of flies stop outdoor picnics before the potato salad is uncovered. Besides being a nuisance, the winged insects are also disease vectors for a variety of bacteria-related illnesses. They may be one reason why Curry County's asthma rate is three times higher than New Mexico's statewide average.

But the dairy industry's most problematic contribution is not easily seen or sniffed. Since large dairy farms -- labeled by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) -- and milk processing facilities use more of the region's limited water supply than other users, they present a serious threat to the counties' main water source, the Ogallala Aquifer. And at the same time that the industry is sucking the ground dry, nitrates from the manure are finding their way back into the ground water in such concentrations as to alarm public health workers and state officials.

Pass the Bible and the Bucks

"Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well (Matthew 6:33)." These are the simple lines of scripture that Otis Davis and his family live by since they started their Matthew 6:33 Academy to bring the teachings of Christ to families across the Southwest. Before this time, according to Otis, he had "built his house on the shifting sands of the world rather than the rock of Christ." And it was during this earlier period, before he was born again, that Otis was the designated pitchman for Roosevelt County's bid to become the dairy capitol of the world.

As a successful real estate developer, broker, and Roosevelt County Republican Chairman, Otis was at the vanguard of the recruiting drive to bring the dairy industry to his region. "In the early 1990s," he told me, "I was a member of the Roosevelt County Economic Development Committee. Me and Ken Fusey, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, decided this would be a great dairy area. We have the right climate for cows, land was cheap, taxes were low, there's little regulation, and we already had a few 100-head dairy farms. So we placed ads in farm magazines and went to trade shows in Chino Valley, California, where the dairy farms were getting pressure from environmental regulators. I have a college degree in marketing, so I know what hot buttons to push to sell somebody something. But believe me, it wasn't a hard sell to get those dairies to come here."

To make the area even more attractive to dairy farmers, Otis and other community leaders spearheaded a drive to raise money to buy land for a new milk processing plant. "We had a meeting of banks and business people and told them we had to raise $300,000 in one day because we had a chance to bring this company to town. The banks and the big businesses were putting up $25,000 each. We wrote the pledges up on the chalkboard and had the money in no time. I put up $10,000 myself. We bought the land and just gave it to Dairy Farmers of America to build their plant."

The plant was built and the dairies came. Farms of 5,000-head pushed aside the small ones, and the new dairymen, many of whom had left the Netherlands one or two generations back when that small country couldn't handle the water polluting farms anymore, sank tens of millions of dollars into their new operations. Their capital came from the sale of their farms in Chino Valley, which went for as much as $200,000 per acre. They bought land in Curry and Roosevelt counties for $1,000 per acre. And before he knew it, Otis and his team of economic development boosters had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Voice of the People

Over half of America's milk is now produced west of the Mississippi. The economic advantages of a near perfect climate, cheap land, subsidized water, an uneven, if not lax regulatory environment, a multi-billion dollar infrastructure consisting of rail, grain elevators, and dairy processing plants, and low-cost Mexican labor (only of half of which is legal by the admission of one Curry County dairyman) have made western dairies the low-cost producers in the national milk market. A New Mexico dairy farmer's breakeven point for a hundred pounds of milk production is between $11.50 and $12.50. For a large (500-head), efficient New England dairy farmer, the breakeven point is over $14.00.

Twelve years have passed since those heady times when Otis and his pals raised a lot of money for rural New Mexico in what amounts to a New York minute. Roosevelt and Curry counties are now in the throes of a veritable dairy boom. For a few, it is literally the land of milk and honey. But for many long time residents, there is a growing disquietude that there is more pain than profit in their economic resurrection.

"They call this the 'Bible belt,' but when you see what's going on around here, you wonder where the Bible is." That was the cynical reaction to the dairy industry's meteoric rise by Dan (a local resident who could not use his full name or employer for fear of being fired), one of a dozen local folks who gathered for lunch one day at Mark's Café in Portales, the county seat for Roosevelt.

"The increase in the fly population is the biggest change over the last few years. You can't leave any food on your counter." said Erin, a housewife. "Another problem is that more trucking [associated with increased milk hauling] is tearing up the roads. We also have more cow dumping." She was referring to a growing phenomena, confirmed by the County Sheriff's Department, that dairy farmers are dumping dead cows along the roadways because they don't want to pay the cost of removing the carcasses (according to some observers of the dairy industry, cow dumping is increasing because sick or "spent" cows have been so burned out by rBGH or are so sick that they can't even be sold to McDonalds, the nation's largest buyer of Holsteins).

Ron, a truck driver, said "our water level is way down. People are losing their wells right and left. Our neighbor, who previously had water at 90 feet had to re-drill his well to 125 feet." While no one, including the dairy industry, disputes the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer is declining (at the rate of one to two feet per year according to New Mexico's State Engineers Office), people only disagree when its water will become too salty to drink. The optimists say 40 years and the pessimists say 5. The deeper the well, however, the more energy required to pump the water, which becomes increasingly problematic in an era of rising energy costs. According to Dr. Neil Nuttal, former superintendent of the Clovis School District (the largest in Curry County), the school system's water costs have gone from $50,000 to $250,000 per year because of increased pumping costs. "That's less money we have for education," he said.

There are social costs as well. Ron said that, "many of the dairies' undocumented workers from Mexico were receiving medical treatment that we, the taxpayers, are paying for. The dairies don't give them health insurance and the state exempts farmers from paying workmen compensation insurance."

In response to the growth in Spanish speaking students, the Clovis School District has increased its English as a Second Language programs by three-fold, and the percentage of children receiving subsidized school lunch has increased from 26% to 52%, according to Nuttal.

Crime and jail overcrowding have gone beyond the headache stage for Curry County, a place that up until recently had only one or two homicides a year. In 2004, according to the district attorney's office, there were 14 homicides. The Clovis News-Journal reports that, "jail overcrowding has crippled the county budget, leading to tax hikes and pay increases to keep detention workers on staff."

A recent survey by the Roosevelt County Health Council, a quasi-governmental group that monitors public health, confirmed that environmental health concerns are widespread. Respondents (n=150) said that dairies were the number one cause of the county's air and water quality problems. As Theresa, a housewife, put it, "living on the high plains, we have natural air conditioning, but we can't open the windows because the manure odor is so bad."

None of the people I spoke with were optimistic about conditions improving. As Dan said, "we don't have an Erin Brokovich to go after these guys." This statement was backed up by a unanimous belief that government would not help them. "The politicians are in the pocket of the dairy industry," said Theresa.

Mark Winne is a freelance writer from Santa Fe, New Mexico and author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty.