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Great Lakes Article:

Environmentalists decry trend toward super-sized farms
The Associated Press

ELKTON, Mich. -- Gary Protzman has a dream. He imagines turning his 300-cow Huron County farm into a 2,000-head, 24-hour dairy operation.

He said he believes the $12 million expansion is the only way he can make a living and lure his two sons back to the family business. Expenses have outstripped income over the past 18 months as milk prices fell, he said.

"They say these days it takes at least 600 cows for a family to make a living," Protzman told the Detroit Free Press for a Monday story. "We figure with two boys, that's three families. About 2,000 cows."

But with more cows comes more manure. Two-thousand cows will produce about 45,000 tons of manure a year. It would take about 30,000 people to produce that much waste.

Spurred by consumer demand for cheap milk, meat and eggs, farms in Michigan and across the country are rapidly expanding. The state Department of Agriculture estimates between 200 and 300 super-sized farms in Michigan, with dozens more proposed.

Environmentalists decry the trend, saying the manure pollutes the land, the water and the air. The Sierra Club has filed lawsuits against four large Michigan dairy farms since 2000 for water pollution.

Unlike smaller farms that dry their manure to be used for fertilizer, the mega-farms generally store liquefied manure until it can be spread on crop fields. Many of the farmers do not own enough land to accommodate the manure, so they contract with others to put it on their fields.

The manure can wash into underground drains after downpours. Environmentalists have found bacteria levels 20 to 30 times the state's limit in waterways around several super-sized farms, called concentrated animal feeding operations, and their crop fields.

"If not now, it's a matter of five or 10 years before CAFOs are the largest contributor to E. coli contamination of the Great Lakes if they continue to spread as they have," said James Clift, spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council.

The Sierra Club has called for a moratorium on the huge farms until stricter laws are adopted. The state plans to conduct a census of super-sized farms in the next few years and require them to meet basic federal environmental standards.

But farming advocates say most large farms do not pollute and most farmers are environmentally conscious. Meanwhile, Michigan State University researchers are trying to develop cheaper ways to treat and neutralize manure.

"We can't go back to the bucolic, small family farm -- that's not what is associated with modern agriculture," said Bill Bickert, professor of agricultural engineering at Michigan State.

"Farmers want a clean environment too. But we want inexpensive food," he said. "I don't think the consumer makes a connection between pristine air, clean water and the cost of their food."

Gary Protzman's sons, 22-year-old Nick and 20-year-old Kyle, work at super-sized farms near the family's Elkton operation, about 10 miles west of Bad Axe. Nick Protzman said he would rather work on his family's farm but cannot afford to unless it expands.

"If we had 1,000 cows, it would be worth it for me to come here and work here," he said. "I can't make it to my potential now."

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