VIDEO: The Cash Cow Catch 22
“If you can, you can see right through there, the dust that’s thrown up because of the composting,” she says, beckoning to the horizon. “That’s manure that’s being composted.”
Plumes of rancid, brown dust billow into the sky, away from Rogers’ Grandview home of 35 years.
“The wind is in our favor today,” says Rogers. “You are lucky today. That would get in your teeth. It would be in your eyes. It would be in your mouth.”
Just a few blocks down Braden Road, a towering tractor with rotating metal blades churns hundreds of rows of manure.
In her years living next to a dairy farm, Rogers says she has seen practices improve. Just eight years ago, she says waste was left near the road in large wet piles to rot. Now, that same waste is composted, but it comes at a cost to the neighborhood.
“Each one of those little cows a big pooper,” says Rogers with a sorrowful laugh. “There’s a lot of poop to deal with, a lot of flies, a lot of odor.”
However, according to dairies in the Yakima Valley, there’s hundreds of moving parts behind the scenes that keep the environment safe, all while keeping up with demand for the diary products consumers find at the grocery store.
Forty minutes up the road from Rogers’ home sits the DeVries Family Farm in Moxee.
“If you put your finger in there, they’ll suck,” says owner Tom DeVries, ruffling the soft ears of a calf inside a pen. The calf responds with a good lick.
DeVries grew up on a dairy farm and has operated the farm in Yakima County since 2001.
The sprawling landscape is home to nearly 5,000 cows. Forty-two full-time staff help maintain the operation that ships out 35,000 gallons of milk every day.
“Twice a day these animals come in. It takes about ten hours to milk them,” explains DeVries.
But the less pleasant reality to the glass of fresh milk consumers enjoy at home, Devries says, is the unavoidable manure. Neat rows line the back of his property, sitting in the open air.
“[There’s] a clay lining [underneath],” says DeVries. “All the runoff is contained to collection pit and is contained into our lagoon system, into our manure storage.”
Such systems aim to reduce groundwater contamination from nitrates.
At DeVries’s farm, manure and urine from the cow pens seeps to a low point underground and is pumped through several machines to separate the liquids from solids.
The solid gets churned into fluffy piles, much of which fertilizes crops used to feed the cows.
“It all kind of ties in together in the circle of life,” says DeVries.
Excess compost is sold.
According to the Washington State Dairy Federation, 60 to 70-percent is exported as natural fertilizer.
Jean Mendoza, executive director with the Friends of Toppenish Creek environmental groups is happy waste is composted, but says locally processed manure and urine leads to damaging liquid runoff and outgassing, comparing it to an ammonia truck crash on I-90 near Cle Elum back in august.
“A thousand cows would come pretty close to the same amount of ammonia that was emitted on the interstate and closed down the interstate,” explains Mendoza. “And this happens every day in the lower Yakima Valley, where there are approximately 110,000 milk cows.”
Mendoza’s group dedicates thousands of hours to attending meetings and presenting their findings, all with the goal of achieving cleaner agricultural practices.
She says federal and state research has found elevated nitrates in the groundwater near several big dairies, and that ammonia gas emissions in the Yakima Valley are estimated at about 60-million pounds in just a year, well above the one million reported by businesses.
Mendoza says part of the problem is enforcement of manure management plans.
“In actuality, the Dairy Nutrient Management Program has no ability to enforce the laws to prevent people from polluting. What they can do is require dairies to have a dairy nutrient management plan,” says Mendoza. “So a plan says on paper, we will do this, and this, and this. There is absolutely no requirement for the dairies to actually follow through with what they say they will do.”
However, the Washington Department of Ecology is pushing to update its permit system for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), including dairies.
The permit draft proposal would require several hundred more Washington state dairies to opt in for requirements.
They would have to comply with a 35 to 100 foot buffer between lands with manure and waterways, forcing some dairies to change land-use practices they’ve cultivated for decades.
The Department of Ecology says requirements not only protect the environment, but also highlight which dairies are in good standing.
The biggest buzz on both sides is the requirement for pollution prevention plans at individual dairies to be made public.
“That’s a big concern,” says Steve George with the Washington State Dairy Federation. “We don’t mind people getting the information from the agency that regulates us. That’s part of the open government. But it could be a significant cost.”
The Department of Ecology is now reviewing 4,500 comments for its new CAFO permit draft, and says cost to the dairies is on its radar.
According to Dr. Shannon Neibergs with Washington State University, in 2011 alone, the state’s dairy industry generated at least $5.2 billion and accounted for more than 18,000 jobs.
However, due to low growth in milk prices, Dr. Neibergs says the number of dairies is actually decreasing.
The number has dropped by around 80-percent in about 30 years, from 3,000 dairies in 1990 to fewer than 500 in 2016.
Dairy advocates say adding new policy on top of this, could put a dent in one of Washington’s biggest cash cows.
“When we put that excessive burden on them, we’re hurting their ability to grow their business,” says Madilynne Clark of the Washington Policy Center. “But also the ability for them to get the food to your table, to get that milk to your cup for your breakfast.”
Mendoza with the Friends of Toppenish Creek says she understands, explaining many in her group actually grew up on farms, but that regulation can keep everyone happy.
“The Yakima Valley is heaven,” says Mendoza. “We hope to maintain that situation, that environment for our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
Back in Grandview, Kathleen Rogers laughs, asking, “Getting bothered by flies?”
She hopes the challenges facing her neighborhood can help serve to boost community awareness.
“Maybe there’s going to be some help. Maybe there’ll be some compassion, and maybe they won’t allow a big CAFO to come into your area in the Tri-Cities. I want to protect my little valley. This is our home.”
Kathleen Rogers says she has received support from the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency, and hopes to have air sensors put in that can detect chemicals in and around her neighborhood.
As for water quality, the Department of Ecology expects to make its draft permit official by the end of 2016.
Research continues into the effects of nitrate pollution on human health.