California dairy farmers look farther afield as state restricts grazing

By Eugene Tong, The Associated Press
Wednesday May 15, 2002

Dry, arid Imperial Valley appears miles removed from the bucolic green pastures where happy cows are seen frolicking in those popular California milk ads. 

But the stretch of desert just north of the Mexican border is hoping to emerge as the home of happy dairy farmers. It touts itself as one of the few places left in California that can fit in the state’s prosperous milk industry, which has grown steadily at about 4 percent a year. 

“We have more than 450,000 acres of cultivatable land,” said Jim Kuhn, a milk farmer and partner at the local Swiss cheese plant in El Centro, about 110 miles east of San Diego. “It’s just inevitable that they come here. There’s no way they can’t.” 

Unless they move out of state, which some dairy farmers are threatening to do in the face of a legal battle that has stalled 127 dairy expansion and construction proposals in central California’s four San Joaquin Valley counties. 

“They have to look at whether it’s better to spend the money fighting litigation that for all intents and purposes doesn’t seem to have an end, or spend the money to relocate and try to get on with your life,” said Michael Marsh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen, a trade group representing half the state’s dairy farmers. 

The San Francisco-based Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Sierra Club have been suing local governments and dairies for the past four years on behalf of residents in Kern, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, said center attorney Brent Newell. 

The lawsuits accuse officials of violating the California Environmental Quality Act by allowing dairies to grow without filing environmental impact reports in a region with some of the nation’s most polluted air. 

“It’s really unacceptable for one of these factory farm dairymen to insist upon the public to bear the cost of the pollution while they profit,” Newell said. “I’m talking about asthma in the San Joaquin Valley and higher health care costs.” 

The litigation has halted the issuing of permits for dairy projects that would have brought an estimated 75,000 cows to the area. 

Amid threats of an exodus, Imperial County has touted itself as an alternative to California’s dairying stronghold, said David Ritter, a projects coordinator at the county’s agriculture commissioner’s office. 

“We don’t have the same concentration of dairies that they do in San Joaquin,” he said. “We have a low population density. We’ve identified properties that would have the lowest impact on the environment.” 

With no ground water to pollute and 60 percent of the state’s alfalfa, the remote border region can support dairies if they can withstand a summer heat that often tops 100 degrees, said Jim Kuhn, who owns the area’s only large-scale dairy with more than 1,000 cows. 

“Cooling costs approximately $300 to $700 per cow,” Kuhn said. 

At least a dozen milk farms have inquired about moving to Imperial, and one dairyman has applied for a permit for a 3,000-cow facility, Ritter said. 

Newell remains skeptical that moving the dairies south will solve pollution problems, however. 

“It’s the way of polluting industries to relocate to places that have looser regulatory rules,” he said. “When counties take the first step to provide information to the public, and take the second step to mitigate those impacts, then you’ll see lawful compliance from counties.” 

Meanwhile, Hanford dairyman George Longfellow said some farmers are considering giving up on California entirely and taking some of its $3.7 billion-a-year milk and cream industry out of state. 

Longfellow, who is uncertain whether he should pursue plans to increase his herd by 900 cows, said an environmental impact report would cost him $100,000, with no guarantee he could ever get the project approved. 

“There have been some folks leaving the state just to avoid being put through the multimillion-dollar litigation from doing business in California,” he said. “They’ve gone to New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho ... some have even gone back east to Wisconsin.”