San Joaquin Valley dairies receive approval after years of suits

By Kim Baca The Associated Press
Wednesday November 13, 2002

LINDSAY — As Rob Hilarides drives his red Dodge truck along a dusty road to his 1,400-acre property, he pulls up to a sign that reads: “Future Home of Hilarides Dairy and Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese.” 

The sign has been the only item on the land the past four years, while environmental groups filed lawsuits to block expansion of the $3.7 billion dairy industry in the San Joaquin Valley because of concerns about air and water pollution from large dairies. 

But Hilarides and other valley dairymen see hope on the horizon. Several counties have approved dairy operations of 5,000 cows or more in recent months. In at least one county, Tulare, nearly 100 dairies have been waiting for permits. 

“Many times during the process we tried to think of a way to run away from the situation, but this is where we have chosen to live and raise our families,” said Hilarides, who recently received approval to build a 9,100 Jersey cow dairy. He said he has spent more than $500,000 for lawyers and environmental studies to keep the project afloat. 

“The support with the community around us has been one of the big factors to enable us to be willing to continue the fight,” he said. 

Environmental groups say they have battled the dairy industry because 72,000 asthma attacks and hundreds of deaths occur a year from an air basin that is one of the dirtiest in the nation, according to federal air regulators. 

“It’s a concern because more cows equals more pollution,” said Brent Newell, an attorney for the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, an organization that has filed several lawsuits in the valley over dairy regulations. “The amount of manure and toxic air pollutants increase when you have a large dairy.” 

Farms contribute more than a quarter of the smog in the valley during summer months and most of the soot pollution the rest of the year, according to the California Air Resources Board. 

Dairies, like farms, have been exempt from federal air regulations. But they soon may be regulated — and required to obtain air permits — after the Environmental Protection Agency settled a lawsuit in May to begin holding farms accountable for pollution from diesel water pumps and animal waste. 

The California Farm Bureau Federation has filed suit seeking to continue the exemption for another three years, so more scientific studies can determine how much pollution farms create. 

Environmental groups say dairies with 4,000 cows or more should be regulated because they annually produce 25 tons of smog-making gases, according to the Air Resources Board. Businesses emitting more than that amount of pollutants are required to have an air permit, which allows regulators to identify and track emission sources. 

But until the farm air permits process becomes law, environmental groups say they have to remain watchdogs. 

“These new proposals are about 8,000 cows or more, and that’s going to have a tremendous impact on air quality and water quality,” said Linda MacKay of the Association of Irritated Residents. “These facilities are much more like factories and should be regulated more like factories.” 

Dairymen whose projects recently have been approved say they have spent thousands of dollars and years fighting because they need larger dairies to compete. 

“We have urban encroachment here in Chino, there’s no way to expand our herd,” said George Borba, who recently received approval from Kern County to build two 14,000-cow dairies with his brother after fighting lawsuits for four years. 

“Our dairies are becoming 30 and 50 years old. We need to build modern facilities so we can complete with the newer ones up in the valley,” he said. “We can’t compete with the newer ones up in the valley, if we don’t move eventually, we will be out of business.” 

In the 1990s, California overtook Wisconsin as the nation’s leading producer of milk and cheese. California’s cows produced about 32.2 billion pounds of milk last year — more than 20 percent of total U.S. milk production. 

Dairy sales in Tulare County, where Hilarides plans to build his dairy, were $1.2 billion last year, and it was the No. 1 agricultural county in the nation. 

But while there is more milk being produced, smaller dairies are selling off their herds or joining together as conglomerates. Dairies are becoming bigger in the United States, but their numbers are decreasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“The traditional quiet, small dairy operations are simply not able to generate enough income for family living to be acceptable,” said Jim Miller, an agricultural economist with the USDA. 

Dairymen such as Hilarides and Borba said they need large dairies to compete, and say they’ve laid down the groundwork for others to follow.