Environmental Review & 'Real Ag'

When Renville County dairy farmer James Kanne addressed a Minnesota Senate hearing on environmental review Jan. 29, he made it clear that size does matter when it comes to assessing the impact of an agricultural operation on the land and community.

“If you have 50 cows in one spot, they have a small impact,” Kanne told the Senate Environment and Energy Committee at the Capitol in St. Paul. “If you have 5,000 cows in one spot, that’s a whole other ballgame.”

And if you are proposing to put 8,850 milk cows and 500 heifers in one spot, you’re talking about not just a different ballgame, but aImage different sport, one in which the participant slurps up 100 million gallons of water annually and produces enough liquid manure to cover nearly 10 square miles.

That's what Riverview LLP would like to do in Stevens County’s Baker Township, making it the largest dairy in the state. In August, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board ordered an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be done to determine if the dairy gets a green light. This decision was based on an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) that had been coordinated by the MPCA. EAWs provide a general assessment of the potential environmental impact of a proposed project, while an EIS takes a much more big-picture view, assessing everything from the cumulative impacts of having several CAFOs in a community (Riverview LLP has other mega-dairies already in operation in the area, each with thousands of heads of cows) to the socioeconomic effects of a project.

The MPCA Citizens' Board decision has drawn a significant backlash from members of the Legislature who are allies of industrial agriculture. They have openly talked about using this legislative session to severely curtail the Citizens’ Board’s power or outright eliminate it. (The idea of killing the Citizens' Board came up earlier this week during the invitation-only "Stronger Together: Minnesota Dairy Growth Summit" held at the University of Minnesota's Saint Paul campus. Besides the U of M, the "summit" was hosted by Midwest Dairy Associates and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. Most of the discussion centered around removing barriers for getting more dairy cows, rather than more dairy farmers, established in our communities.)

But as the Jan. 29 hearing made clear, the MPCA Citizens’ Board had good reason to order an EIS for the Baker project, and we all have a stake in making sure the Board has the power to take similar actions in the future.

When the Citizens’ Board voted 6-1 to order an EIS, the extensive “Findings of Fact” it provided to bolster its case show that this was not a decision it took lightly. There are several issues that need to be investigated thoroughly when it comes to a project of this size and scope, issues a simple EAW simply can’t address. Specifically, the EAW couldn’t determine the long-term impact Riverview LLP’s proposal would have on groundwater and surface water, key issues in a part of the state where wells are going dry and the Pomme de Terre River is already significantly impaired.

At 29 gallons her head, per day, the estimated annual water usage for Riveriew LLP’s Baker Dairy project is at least 98,969,750 gallons. The deeper aquifer in the area of the dairy will reach 50 percent threshold by the 2030s at current water use levels. As the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources points out, when a confined aquifer reaches 50 percent threshold, “sustainability of the aquifer is in question.” A DNR analysis found that if the proposed factory farm dairy is allowed to drill the two new wells it wants to, the aquifer will reach the 50 percent threshold “much sooner than the 2030s.”

It’s not just water quantity that’s threatened by an operation of this size. It’s estimated Riveriew LLP's Baker Dairy will need 6,300 acres of land to take care of all the manure those cows will be producing. Problem is, the dairy's owners currently have access to only 3,060 acres of land they either own or rent. Theoretically, the dairy could make up for that 3,240-acre shortfall by talking crop farmers in the area into buying the manure. The success of such a method for getting rid of excess manure depends a lot on how much farmers are willing to pay for the stuff. Here in Minnesota, hauling manure much past a mile starts to lose economic feasibility fast, according to a technical paper done for the Minnesota Generic Environmental Impact Statement on Animal Agriculture. So the temptation is to dump it as close to the CAFO facilities as possible, creating an excess of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in the immediate area, which can result in contaminated water.

This brings up a key difference between a farm like James Kanne’s and the Riverview LLP operation. Small and moderate-sized dairies tend to have a more close-loop system when it comes to manure management: the operations are of a size that they can grow their own feed and the amount of manure is of modest enough volumes that it can be applied to the very fields near the barn that produced that feed in the first place.

As Minnesota’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement on Animal Agriculture found, “Larger feedlots, on average, have much higher levels of [phosphorus] build-up than do smaller feedlots,” as a result of this imbalance. Studying 3,907 feedlot permits issued over a 20-year period, the study found the largest operations were producing as much as 38 pounds of excess phosphorus for each acre of land to which the manure was applied, while the smallest operations had a phosphorus deficit in many cases. And that excess phosphorus (and nitrogen) can be a significant water pollutant all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

As Kanne, who milks 48 cows on 240 acres, pointed out to the Senate Environment Committee, farms that are his scale don’t have a problem with environmental reviews. He described to the Committee how he had to undergo such a review when constructing a manure storage facility for his dairy.

“We had to do an assessment of what we would do as a farm, how that would impact the groundwater and where we would haul the manure,” Kanne said. “That is no problem for a small farm to handle.”

A diversified family farm that has a tight nutrient cycle simply isn’t going to have the kind of impact that warrants an EIS, and those kinds of operations don’t need to push their costs of waste disposal onto the public. Unfortunately, some lawmakers don’t agree.

“That’s not real ag,” Senator Julie Rosen of Fairmont said during a Senate Rural Task Force hearing in November, referring to the 320-acre diversified farm owned and operated by a Citizens’ Board member. Rather, Rosen added, Riverview LLP’s Baker Dairy is her idea of “real ag.” (Senator Rosen is also a member of the Environment and Energy Committee, but she was noticeably silent during the Jan. 29 hearing.)

Senator Rosen may want to check her statistics. Almost 80 percent of Minnesota dairy farmers have under 100 cows. Study after study, some done at the U of M, verifies that communities benefit more economically and socially from several small and moderate-sized working farms, rather than a handful of mega-operations. And that brings up another major question that an EIS can help answer: what impact will it have on the economic fabric of an area reliant on family sized farms? That’s a key question, one that gets overlooked in the drive to serve the interests of a special few in the agri-industrial complex.

Riverview LLP is already having an impact. Kathy DeBuhr, a Stevens County farmer who lives within a mile of the proposed operation, told the Senate Environment Committee on Jan. 29 that her two sons want to farm, but high land prices in the area are an insurmountable barrier.

“[Riverview] has bought up land right next to ours for over twice the going rate of the rest of the land and that’s one reason why my sons will not be able to farm,” DeBuhr said. “We can’t afford to pay what this dairy can pay.”

Kanne’s daughter and son-in-law have recently joined his dairy operation, giving him hope for the kind of agriculture that focuses on sustainable profits and quality of life, rather than just unlimited milk production, no matter what the cost.

“There’s no greater joy for me than to see them coming into the farm operation, and to be able to be there with my grand kids and be able to work with them side-by-side. That is what family farming is all about,” said Kanne. “And if we’re losing that family farm, then we’re losing our communities in rural Minnesota and we lose the fabric of our rural area because of it. So we do not just need to focus on more and more milk, we need more and more farmers.”

That’s real ag.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.