Postcard from New Mexico: Dueling with the Mega-Dairies
I’d never been to New Mexico before, but I pretty much knew what to expect. Majestic, still-snowy mountains. Low adobe buildings and scrub brush. An eclectic mix of indigenous, cowboy, and rugged outdoorsy cultures. Intense dryness.
Oh, and 340,000 dairy cows.
You’re forgiven if you didn’t know that New Mexico is our nation’s ninth-largest dairy producing state: It wasn’t even on the dairy map until about ten years ago. Today, though, New Mexico cows produce 4 million tons of milk each year. They also generate nearly 9 million tons of manure, enough to fill nine Olympic-size swimming pools every day.
Dairies in New Mexico are larger than what is typical in other places, averaging nearly 2,000 cows per operation. Like other factory farms, they generally don’t treat their waste. Instead, they store it in massive manure lagoons until the waste can be pumped out and sprayed on cropland. When the manure seeps through the ground, it can contaminate the groundwater underneath.That’s a particularly big problem in New Mexico. Because New Mexico is an incredibly dry state, its cities and rural communities must draw on groundwater for drinking, bathing and other uses. 90 percent of New Mexicans rely on groundwater as their main water source.
Perched just a few yards above the state’s groundwater aquifers – which in some cases run as close as 5 feet from the surface – sits nine million tons of cow manure. If you think that sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re correct. In fact, this disaster pie is already made and cooling on the rack.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) estimates that nearly two-thirds of dairies in the state have contaminated the groundwater around them so badly that the water is unsafe to drink. Last year, NMED proposed new regulations that would, for the first time, set requirements on dairies to reduce groundwater pollution. My colleague Sam Schabacker and I headed to New Mexico on April 13th for hearings to determine whether the state would adopt the new rules, or remain back in the dark – and smelly – ages.
We joined coalition partners from the Sierra Club Rio Grande chapter, Amigos Bravos, Citizens for Dairy Reform, and Caballo Concerned Citizens to support NMED’s proposal and offer our own recommendations for making the rules even more effective. I’ll get to those in a sec.
On the other side of the proverbial aisle sat the dairy industry, represented by, among others, Walter Bradley, former lieutenant governor of New Mexico and a representative of Dairy Farmers of America. In the written testimony he submitted before the hearing, Bradley complained about low milk prices – dairy farmers saw record-low prices for their milk last year – and argued that it was a terrible time to impose more costs on them through regulation.
I found that pretty ironic. Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) is the largest dairy cooperative in the country, controlling some 30% of the nation’s milk. It buys milk from farmers and processes it into cheese and other products in its own facilities, or sells it to even larger processors like Dean Foods. Although it’s technically a cooperative, it’s an extreme exaggeration to say that DFA represents the interests of U.S. dairy farmers. In fact, DFA is the subject of a class-action lawsuit brought in October of 2009 by 10,000 dairy farmers in 11 states, who allege that DFA deliberately drove down prices for farmers while reaping inflated profits. (After all, for DFA, milk is an input; it makes sense that it would want that input to be as cheap as possible.)
In late 2008, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission found that DFA had attempted to drive down farmers’ milk prices through a manipulative trading scheme. DFA was fined $12 million and was prohibited from engaging in futures trading for two years.
I couldn’t wait until Bradley took the stand so our lawyer could ask him more about his own organization’s role in driving milk prices down for farmers. Why, for example, are farmers offered record-low prices for their milk, while cheese prices for consumers have actually gone up? And, how high were DFA’s profits last year, again?
But first, it was our turn. NMED witnesses explained the background on the regulations, and then I took the stand with two of the staff from Amigos Bravos. We argued for reasonable additions to NMED’s proposal: We want the dairies to monitor their groundwater not just for standard contaminants like nitrates, but also for things like E. coli, which is common in dairy waste. We want people living within three miles of a proposed dairy to be given notice that the dairy wants to develop there, so that they can participate in deciding whether or not to allow it. We want dairies to have insurance so that if they skip town or go out of business, state taxpayers aren’t stuck with the bill to clean up their mess.
The three of us were on the witness stand for nearly four hours. Cross-examination by the dairy lawyers and the Water Commission was grueling, but we hammered home our message: It’s the job of the Commission to protect water for all New Mexicans. That doesn’t just mean the big dairies; it means the many residents who rely on groundwater for drinking, some of whom get water from private wells that aren’t tested or treated like public water systems are. These are the people who have to shoulder healthcare costs when they get sick from contaminated water, who see their property values decline when a big dairy moves in next door, and who can’t enjoy their land or homes because of the smell and flies.
The dairy industry is well funded – they organized a bus of dairymen to be brought up from Southeast New Mexico on Tuesday to give public comment against the regulations – but our coalition is powering forward. On Thursday morning, Sam presented the over 200 comments he’d collected from Food & Water Watch supporters around the state in favor of strong, fair regulations on dairy pollution.
On Friday, we heard that the Commission is postponing the rest of the hearing until early May. That gives us a chance to put greater pressure on the Commission and the Governor, who we hear may be siding with the dairies. It’s time to speak up and ensure that New Mexico’s water is protected for all New Mexicans, not just private interests.
To learn more about corporate control in the dairy industry, see our fact sheet.
-Elanor Starmer, Western Region Director