Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reaction to NYTimes Article on Well Contamination

I read yesterday's New York Times article, Health Ills Abound as Farms Runoff Fouls Wells with great sadness. The article focuses on the impact that the over-application of manure from large dairy farms can have on groundwater resources and the contamination of wells in Wisconsin. It is the tragic story of the risks associated with intense winter manure application and the effect of an early thaw.
"In Morrison, more than 100 wells were polluted by agricultural runoff within a few months, according to local officials. As parasites and bacteria seeped into drinking water, residents suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.

“Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet,” said Lisa Barnard, who lives a few towns over, and just 15 miles from the city of Green Bay.

Tests of her water showed it contained E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants found in manure. Last year, her 5-year-old son developed ear infections that eventually required an operation. Her doctor told her they were most likely caused by bathing in polluted water, she said."
I am saddened because the article presents a chilling criticism of an industry that I have spent most of my professional life supporting; I am saddened because I grew up on a dairy farm in a rural area not unlike the Wisconsin community described in the article. I know how many of us rely on wells for our water source. But, I am probably most distressed by what I anticipate will be the reaction of many in the farm community to this story. There will be talk of the east-coast urban media, people that just don't "understand agriculture," and denial.

My response - and I do understand agriculture - is that it is time for the agricultural industry as a whole and farmers as individuals to stop putting up a wall around themselves and arguing that all of the criticism is unjust. The wells that are contaminated in Wisconsin are the wells of farmers, rural residents, and rural community schools - the fabric of the world that surrounds our farms. This is not an us-against-them issue. It is time for the industry to stop viewing environmental problems as a public relations issue and step up to the plate. A good dose of honest, self-reflection is good for everyone.

The same might be said for consumers. We clamor for low cost food and complain when prices go up. We reward producers and manufacturers who cut costs by searching for the cheapest products available. For some this might be a necessity; for most of us, it represents a false economy. Do we really want a food system that is only financially viable because we do not keep track of the environmental problems it creates?

Government policies, the structure of our milk marketing system, consumer desire for cheap food, and our failure to add the cost of environmental externalities into our economic analysis have put many small Wisconsin dairies out of business. All of these factors have encouraged farmers like those interviewed in the story to expand their operations, creating the megafarms that produce more waste than many cities.
"One of those farmers, Dan Natzke, owns Wayside Dairy, one of the largest farms around here. Just a few decades ago, it had just 60 cows. Today, its 1,400 animals live in enormous barns . . . In June, Mr. Natzke explained to visiting kindergarteners that his cows produced 1.5 million gallons of manure a month."
Only when we admit that there are serious problems can sustainable solutions be achieved. Those solutions should be in the long term best interests of farmers and consumers. Unless farmers admit to the problems their operations are causing, they will not be included in the formation of those solutions.

Farmers have long argued that they were different from corporations - that their concern was not based solely on the bottom line, that they cared about the future of their land and their community. I say its time for agriculture to prove it.


Anonymous Ian Arbuckle said...

I saw the article on Common Dreams where I made the following comment:
It seems that not only are these dairy operations polluting but are wasting valuable resources. Suggest someone mentions to them “Anaerobic Methane Digester”. With 1.5 million gallons of manure you should be able to run all the TV’s and microwaves in a few towns anyway.

It seems as if this article was written by one of the kindergarten students mentioned, as far as its relevance to technical solutions to this problem is concerned.

For those interested in manure treatment:
There seems to be a business opertunity for somebody there. I'm happy to come from Portugal to show these farmers how to make money from their waste and improve their crops and the invironment at the same time. Just email me at

9/19/2009 4:06 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

I was thinking the very same thing, Ian.

Apparently Alliant Energy looked into that very business opportunity:

Note that the report actually lists Dan Natzke's Wayside Dairy as having the capacity to potentially produce 1,200 megawatts of power from their waste.

Here's some info about this technology in practice:

Better managing the pollution from these farms still doesn't address the problems associated with factory farming more generally, however...

9/22/2009 12:13 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

The links weren't posted properly, so here they are again. This is is one URL, split into 3 pieces just so it'll fit here. Paste it back together again and it should work:

Link #2 (one URL, split into two pieces):

9/22/2009 12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The farmers aren't interested in "owning" their part in the problem, as they are deeply afraid of litigation.

As I recall, the words I heard were, "Well, it could be from any number of sources..."

9/23/2009 11:30 PM  

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