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Waste runoff a worry with mega-farms
State plays catch-up in keeping lid on manure
By Chris Christoff
Detroit Free Press

HUDSON -- The two Vreba-Hoff dairy farms are imposing, white edifices on the farmland of southern Michigan, each housing 3,000 cows in 800-foot-long stables that from a distance resemble industrial plants more than barns.

They are archetypes of modern mass milking, with computers that track each cow's output and tanks that chill 100-degree raw milk to 36 degrees in two minutes. The farms are a success story for four Michigan brothers, two sisters and three cousins from the Netherlands.

But they also are the chief targets in a hunt for manure-based pollution in drains that crisscross the rolling, expansive farm fields of Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.

That hunt finally produced a $30,000 state fine for the two dairies in February, and a court judgment ordering them to stop manure and leachate from stored feed from dripping into nearby streams and drainage ditches.

Those drains eventually feed Lake Erie through the Raisin and Maumee rivers.

"Everyone counts on pollution to disperse, but when you see what happens to the aquatic life, even in drain ditches, you can see what an effect it has," said Janet Kauffman, a former farmer who's lived in the area for 30 years.

On a rainy June morning, she and an assistant drew water samples from 12 sites along public drains and creeks. They found bacteria counts much higher than allowable levels, and oxygen levels that suffocate fish.

The Vreba-Hoff dairies demonstrate how agriculture's push toward profitable animal mega-farms combined with lax state regulations to produce environmental problems. The farms are two of 19 super-sized farms that have been placed under the watch of the state Department of Environmental Quality for pollution violations. CAFOs -- concentrated animal feeding operations -- have multiplied in Michigan since the mid-1990s as an agricultural response to consumer demands for cheap milk and meat. By building super-sized farms, farmers take advantage of economy of scale.

In Michigan, environmental laws aren't triggered until after a farm has caused water pollution. Before laws that took effect this year, large-scale dairy, hog or poultry farms could build facilities without prior state approval.

Now, state officials are struggling under rules to regulate big farms that were built with little or no oversight.

The growth of CAFOs is most pronounced in the state's dairy sector, which accounts for one-fourth of Michigan's $3.5-billion farm industry.

At the Vreba-Hoff dairies, cows dine on a feed mixture in their sand-filled stalls, where their manure is kept out. They are milked round-the-clock.

The comfort pays off. The farms ship 40,000 gallons of milk each day to processing plants.

As he watched a long row of meters that measure milk drained from cows, co-owner Steve Vanderhoff smiled and said, "I like to see this. That's fun."

Vanderhoff, 32, has dairy farming in his bones. A son of a Dutch immigrant, he began milking 100 cows on a small farm with his brothers. Now, the family operates two of the state's largest dairy farms, each built for about $14 million.

The size of the dairies, Vanderhoff said, is the only way to pay for such equipment as computers and automatic gates that guide cows to their stalls.

But for all of the technology, a very low-tech method disposes of the nearly 40 million gallons of liquefied manure each year. It is stored in huge concrete-lined ponds and spread on 6,000 acres of farm land, most of it owned by other farmers .

John Klein is president of Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, which regularly samples water from drains and streams around the Vreba-Hoff CAFOs and others in Hillsdale and Lenawee counties.

Klein lives on Lime Lake a mile from one of the two Vreba-Hoff farms. He said there is fear of but no evidence yet that manure runoff from the farms has harmed the lake. The state has found bacteria in a stream that feeds the lake.

Klein said manure odors from the farms force him at times to close up his house, and that contamination of Lime Lake would make property values "around zero." He said Vanderhoff has not done enough to stop pollution.

"Farmers will tell you that you're in the country, get used to country smells," Klein said. "Well, we've been here since 1985. This is not your typical country smell.

"They point to the right to farm, but I've got a right to live, too," Klein said.

Vanderhoff said he's cooperating with the DEQ to stop the pollution. He said he is considering a new technology of mass composting that turns liquified manure into a solid, less noxious and less toxic fertilizer.

The Vreba-Hoff farms opened in 1997 and 2001, at a time when state regulation of super-sized animal farms was almost nonexistent. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered states to enact stricter controls on such facilities.

Vanderhoff describes the environmental problems as "a learning curve." He said the dairies once spread manure on farm fields in winter, when the frozen ground allowed manure to run into public drains.

They've stopped that, he said.

But the DEQ cites inherent design problems with the Vreba-Hoff dairies' manure and feed storage systems -- flaws it says could cause more pollution, especially after heavy rain.

"We're trying to get a handle on the number of CAFOs," said DEQ spokeswoman Pat Spitzley.

Vreba-Hoff has an affiliated developer that plans to build 28 more dairy CAFOs

CAFOs are profitable only because they use the cheapest method of manure disposal, spreading it on the land rather than treating it first, said Bill Weida, who works for Grace Project, an organization that opposes CAFOs.

Weida said most states have virtually no way to monitor manure disposal.

"Voluntary programs like this do not work, period," Weida said. "CAFO owners are motivated by money, not by doing the right thing."

Vanderhoff says he has more to gain than anyone by being a good environmental steward. He points to his 2-year-old son, Chandler, who he said he hopes becomes a farmer someday.

"Hopefully, I'm going to be here for the next 20 or 30 years, maybe longer," he said. "Why in God's name would I want to pollute something where I'm going to raise . . . my family?"

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