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|Posted: Mon Jul 05, 2010 5:56 pm Post subject: The toxic truth about mega-farms
|The toxic truth about mega-farms: Chemical fumes, distressed animals and poisoned locals driven from their homes and worse
Writer Steve Boggan
Aside from the times when he worried that his children might never wake up at all, Jeff Brouse remembers the worst nights as the ones when they woke up screaming. Hot nights were the most frightening.
That was when warm air would rise and the gas - hydrogen sulphide, heavier than air - would roll on down the hill to his pretty farmhouse as if heralding the arrival of some demon in a horror movie.
Then the smell would overpower them. The headaches and sickness would begin, the nausea and dizziness.
And, over and over again, Jeff and his wife Lesley would scoop up their little children, Brooklyn, then aged five, and Jackson, four, and, in Jeff's words, get the hell out of there, far enough away as to be able to breathe.
'Mega-farm': Cows by the thousand live on concrete and rarely get to see the sun, they never actually graze and their lives are shortened by round-the-clock milking
'There were times I was terrified for my kids,' recalls Jeff, 40. 'And towards the end, Lesley was pregnant and the doctor said the gas could affect the baby. We got away then, as much as we could, went down the road to my parents' place and slept on the concrete floor.'
So what kind of ghastly chemical plant did the Brouses live next door to in Minnesota? in fact, the facility that was slowly poisoning this hapless family (and thousands like them across America) was a dairy farm. Not, however, a dairy farm as you might imagine, with cows chewing the cud or roaming freely in the fields.
This one was called a CAFO - a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation - a 'mega-farm' where cows by the thousand live on concrete and rarely get to see the sun, where they never actually graze, where their lives are shortened from round-the-clock milking.
'Don't let mega-farms get a foothold in the UK'
This is a farm where huge quantities of hormones and antibiotics - administered because their miserable, cramped existences make the cattle prone to disease - are hosed away in the gallons of waste which they produce and stored in vast lagoons by the tens of millions of gallon, ready to be sprayed on to local farmland as fertiliser.
And, terrifyingly, this could soon be the future of farming in Britain.
Until now the British agricultural industry has steered clear of dairy farming on such an industrial scale. The average size of a dairy herd in the UK is somewhere between 70 and 100 animals. But all that could be about to change.
Many dairy farmers believe the drive towards larger dairies - and the economies of scale they bring - is inevitable as supermarkets try to force prices down. In 1998, there were 31,753 dairy farmers in the UK.
By 2008, this had shrunk to just 17,060, with many going into liquidation claiming that it cost more to produce milk than they could sell it for - recently as little as 25p per litre. A further 9 per cent are expected to leave the industry within the next two years.
Which is why some farmers have scented the opportunity for economies of scale - doing for dairy and meat farming what battery chicken farms have done for the poultry industry.
Intensive methods: Battery hens are kept in wire cages and treated like machines
During the past year, planning applications for two dairy and one pig mega-farm have been lodged. There are plans being considered for a giant pig farm in Foston, Derbyshire, housing 2,500 sows and up to 15,000 of their piglets.
And in Lincolnshire, proposals for mega-dairy operations housing 3,000 cows in south Witham and 8,100 in Nocton have been made - then withdrawn.
But, crucially, the Nocton scheme - the biggest ever in Western Europe - is expected to be re-submitted any day now, once final adjustments have been made.
Many of the residents there are preparing to object. Others remain in blissful ignorance - perhaps reasoning that 'it's only a dairy farm'.
'Your eyes water, you feel sick and dizzy'
One thing is sure: if the planning application is successful, then the Nocton farm may well be the bridgehead for other mega-farms to apply for permission. So what can Britain expect?
Lynn Henning, 52, lives on land that has been farmed by her husband Dean's family for five generations in Clayton, Michigan.
'I moved into the family farm when we got married and I thought it was heaven on earth,' says Lynn. 'This is rolling, bucolic country and was very beautiful before the mega-farms began setting up in the mid-Nineties. Since then, it has been a nightmare.'
There are now 12 CAFO farms within a ten-mile radius of the Henning farm. 'There are 60 lagoons [of slurry] containing 400 million gallons of animal waste,' says Lynn.
'You have to dismiss the idea that you will be getting anything like an old-fashioned dairy farm over there in England. CAFOs are industrial factories and they use animals as machines to be exploited.
'I grew up with the smell of manure and I think it is a healthy country smell. What you get with mega-farms is nothing like that. The gas that comes off these lagoons and off the fields when they spray them with the waste makes you dry-heave and want to vomit. Your eyes water, you feel sick and dizzy.
'In wet weather the waste runs off the fields and pollutes creeks and rivers. In dry weather you get a brown dust that rises and covers everything. You get millions and millions of flies. You gag and choke. You can't even go outside.'
Tests on soil and water near Lynn's farm over nine years have revealed high concentrations of e.coli, salmonella, listeria, cryptosporidium, and other diseasecausing pathogens.
The problem is not with the animal waste per se, but with the concentration of it all in one place, because such large herds are being cramped together.
'One cow makes as much waste as 23 humans,' says Lynn. A farm of 8,100 cows, therefore, (such as the one proposed for Lincolnshire) would produce the same waste as a city of 186,300 people.
'The difference with people is that their waste is treated, ' adds Lynn. ' With CAFOs, the waste is just stored and then spread over surrounding fields. It really is incredible when you think about it.
'I have a constant hacking cough and both my in-laws have been diagnosed with neurological damage caused by the hydrogen sulphide. You'd have to be crazy to let one of these things anywhere near the English countryside.'
It isn't only in Michigan that mega-farms have caused serious problems. According to a 2008 report by the American Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) there are 9,900 across the USA.
They comprise only about 5 per cent of animal operations by number of farms but now produce more than 50 per cent of the country's farmed animals.
Mega-farm owners often claim they bring prosperity and employment to an area, yet campaigners in the U.S. say that for every two jobs they bring, another four wither and die.
Because for every huge factory farm that arrives, as many as 10 small family farmers go out of business as they are unable to compete.
As for farming and animal welfare, Paul Shapiro, of the U.S. Humane Society, says: 'Factory farms in the U.S. have a terrible record of cruelty to animals and they have brought devastation to our rural and farming communities and to our air, water and soil.
'Don't make the same mistake that agribusiness has made here in America. Don't let mega-farms get a foothold in your country.'
The development causing the most concern in the UK is at Nocton, a beautiful and ancient village in the Lincolnshire countryside. Plans were submitted to North Kesteven District Council but withdrawn in April after loud complaints from the local community.
Nocton Dairies Ltd wanted to build eight 'cattle accommodation buildings', each housing around 1,000 cows that would rarely, if ever, get out (a practice called 'zerograzing'.
There would also be two calving units and a special ' anaerobic' waste digestion unit which would turn some of the manure into usable gas and which, the company claims, will eradicate smells.
Yet the gas unit would not be built for two years and farmers to whom I spoke in the U.S. said such digesters manage only to remove some odours.
Besides, there is also expected to be a 30 million gallon slurry lagoon near the village of Mere (that's 10 million gallons more than the one near the Brouse family home in Minnesota), and a further six lagoons with capacity for another 33 million gallons of animal waste nearby.
The leading lights behind the scheme are Peter Willes, a dairy farmer who has 2,000 cows associated with his cheese company, Parkham Farms, near Bideford in Devon, and David Barnes, who milks a similar number in Clitheroe in Lancashire. They also have a local partner in Nocton, farmer Robert Howard.
Graeme Surtees, a consultant to the Nocton project, said: 'The British dairy industry is dying and this project will generate new jobs and protect existing ones. Without this kind of investment, we will be exporting our dairy industry abroad.'
Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union and the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs assured me that animal welfare and environmental controls in the UK are more strict than in the United States.
Be that as it may, the Nocton mega-farm is expected to be a 'zero-grazing' operation, meaning the cattle would not be free to graze on pasture in the traditional way, but on a mixture of commercial animal feeds and what the company describes as 'by-products from industries such as the Newark sugar beet factory and the proposed ethanol plant at Immingham'.
Nocton also insist that animal welfare will be at the forefront of its concerns, with animals having sand on which to bed down, open-sided sheds and vets available 24 hours a day.
During a radio interview with BBC Radio Lincolnshire, Mr Willes said conditions at Nocton would be 'five star' and that cows would opt for his facility if given the choice. In the same interview, he also said that cows 'did not belong in fields'.
To a large extent, if his anticipated application were to be approved, the people of Nocton would have to take his stewardship of Britain's first mega-dairy on trust.
They might be disappointed, then, to learn that Mr Willes's stewardship of some of his other farms has been decidedly chequered.
In 2005 he was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £4,000 costs after an investigation by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (part of Defra) found that he had bought unauthorised antibiotics to be administered to his animals.
That was at Sedborough Farm, near Bideford in Devon. His company was also fined £6,700 following a release of milk into Dipple Water in 2008 from Higher Alminstone Farm nearby.
An Environment Agency spokesman described the spill as: 'One of the worst we have seen for some time.'
Thing of the past? Dairy cows graze in Cheshire on more traditional meadowland
Furthermore, Mr Willes has displayed a cavalier disregard for planning regulations. He recently enraged members of Parkham Parish Council when he got planning permission for a slurry lagoon at Sedborough Farm, but built a much bigger one.
He later applied for retrospective planning permission but the parish council opposed this.
A letter from the chairman of the parish council, Ian Pincombe, to Torridge District Council in Devon says the council is concerned over 'creeping industrialisation of our parish arising from development by stealth and cynical misuse of retrospective planning procedures' by Mr Willes.
Hardly the blemish-free record one would hope for a man hoping to pioneer industrial farming to Britain.
Aside from the potential damage to the environment posed by CAFOs, there are concerns about what it will mean for the whole future of farming.
'Zero-grazing has vacuumed the countryside free of animals in the United States and we are on the verge of doing exactly the same here,' says Justin Kerswell of the animal welfare group Viva!. 'Cows and pigs belong in fields, not in mazes of metal and stone.'
Back in the U.S., Excel Dairies, which caused Jeff Brouse and his family so much trouble, closed down last year following action by the Minnesota Department of Health, so the family is back at home - at least until another company takes over the dairy.
'We can't sell the house and we don't know what's coming next,' he says. 'What I do know for sure is that you don't want this sort of farming in your country. It just isn't natural for the animals and it destroys the environment.
'If I'd have known what was coming, I'd have fought it tooth and nail. If you take my advice, you'll do the same.'
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