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Fighting Factory Farms
How a soft-spoken nurse-turned-farmer helped blow the whistle on a new breed of giant agricultural polluters.

Ann Arbor Obersver, December 2003

by Daniel Sturm

When Kathy Melmoth decided to quit her job as a Washtenaw County public health nurse and become a full-time farmer in 1990, she didn't realize that the career change would throw her into a battle against factory farming.
On a Saturday morning in late September, Melmoth, fifty-one, is selling perennials and winter squash at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market. She's a quiet, thoughtful presence at stall 42 nine months of the year. Along with flowers and produce, her company, Recipe Gardens, sells garlic and holiday wreaths in season. Everything Melmoth brings to the market is grown or made by her and her husband David at their nursery near Hudson, Michigan, fifty miles south of their old hometown.

The Melmoths were drawn to the area by its clean air and water and by the rich diversity of animals and plants. They use minimal fertilizers and no chemicals, and have even turned a quarter of their eighty-acre property back into wetlands. Within hours of breaking up the underground tile that drained the land, Kathy saw ducks arriving. Every year since, she's counted more-along with frogs, turtles, butterflies, and even an occasional blue heron.
They had a vision of what country life was supposed to be. "We thought we could contribute to a rural community," she remembers. "We wanted to sell our products at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market, and then return and buy things locally. We wanted to be part of a local economy."
The Melmoths have done all those things. After years of hard work, Kathy says proudly, they're actually earning a living as full-time, taxpaying farmers. But since a factory dairy farm opened nearby three years ago, all that they've worked for has been in danger.
When they became farmers, Kathy had looked forward to work that would make her healthy and strong, and to spending much of her day outdoors. She never imagined that swarms of flies, an unbearable stench, and terrible headaches would trap her inside her farmhouse.

Recruiting polluters
In 2000 the Dutch-American Vreba-Hoff Dairy, LLC, built a factory farm roughly five miles south of the Melmoths' farm. Three thousand cows are confined there year round in giant barns. Known more bureaucratically as a "confined animal feeding operation" (CAFO), Vreba-Hoff 2 uses scrapers and huge quantities of water to wash away the cows' feces and urine. The resulting sewage-60,000 gallons a day-pours into huge open pits on the property. Eventually the liquid manure is trucked, pumped, or sprayed onto the surrounding fields.

Even five miles away, says Melmoth, the stench is much worse than rotten eggs. "It smells like something dead. It reminds me of the smell when a septic system fails. That's untreated waste, and it's very, very foul."
When Melmoth told people at the Farmers' Market what was happening, she found that few knew anything about factory farms. "Most of the Ann Arbor customers I've talked to are surprised that we even have factory farms in this state, and that growers on this market come from areas that have been impacted," she says.

In fact, Vreba-Hoff 2 is the owners' second 3,000-cow operation near Hudson. Other firms operate eight additional CAFOs in the area-and Vreba-Hoff is actively working to increase that number.

On its website, Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development advertises a recruitment program for farmers from the Netherlands and Canada who'd like to relocate to the United States. In addition to its own two operations in Hudson, the Dutch-American CAFO already has helped seven other agricultural factories set up dairy operations in Michigan. One attraction is the federal government's generous farm support program. In 1995-2002, Vreba-Hoff co-owner Stephen Vanderhoff collected over $72,000 in dairy, corn, soybean, and wheat subsidies. During the same period, Char-Lin Farms, one of the biggest operations in Hudson, received more than $2 million-$1.3 million in federal crop supports and an additional $800,000 from the state for farmland preservation.
According to Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Mackinac Chapter, European and Canadian farmers also are attracted by Michigan's cheap land and lax environmental regulations.

"Because of water quality concerns, the Netherlands bought out many dairy operations and limited the size of others," noted Melmoth's friend Janet Kauffman in a 2002 essay for Dissent magazine. Kauffman, an EMU professor, found that hundreds of Dutch farmers had relocated in the United States, in such places as Texas, Idaho, Washington, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. In Hudson most of the CAFOs are Dutch operations, whose facilities are ten to fifty times larger than those the owners left behind in Europe.

Factory farms have been linked to serious environmental and health problems. Escherichia coli bacteria from cattle waste runoff have been blamed for disease outbreaks in New York and Canada. Systematic overuse of antibiotics has increased the number of antibiotic-resistant microbes, which in turn threaten humans who come in contact with contaminated waters. While the concentrated animal waste produced by factory farms is collecting in open-air lagoons or evaporating through sprays, it also emits gases, including toxic hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. And recent studies attribute an increase of sinusitis and hepatitis in the United States in part to water and food contaminated with livestock fecal materials.

Even five miles away, the Melmoths couldn't escape the smell of Vreba-Hoff 2. But things were much worse for their doctor, Leland Wolf, whose home was less than a quarter mile from the CAFO. Wolf told Kathy Melmoth that ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane gas given off by CAFO sewage could cause severe headaches, chronic sinus infections, recurrent bronchitis, and lung burns. Fearing that Vreba-Hoff's emissions would worsen his own daughter's asthma, Wolf moved away from the farmhouse where his family had lived for seven generations.

Alarmed by her doctor's decision and the smell in the air, the nurse who became a farmer found herself drawn back into the field of public health. Melmoth helped organize the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM), a group of twenty small-scale farmers and area residents who were worried about water and air quality. Today, she finds herself immersed in a battle reminiscent of the one depicted in the film Erin Brockovich, whose protagonist takes on a large corporation when pollution causes residents of her community to become sick.

Melmoth, Janet Kauffman, and another ECCSCM member, Lynn Henning, educated themselves about water monitoring. Then they began to test drains, ditches, streams, and lakes for contamination from factory farms, with the same methods used by government water-monitoring officials. In 2001 Anne Woiwode's Sierra Club chapter gave them a $7,000 grant to fund ECCSCM, pay for monitoring expenses, and assist with further training.

Liquid manure spreads quickly through Michigan's water, because much of the state used to be woodland swamps. In order to farm the swamps, early settlers needed not only to clear the trees but also to drain the water, through a complex system of trenches and buried clay tiles like the ones the Melmoths broke up. Liquid pooled on the surface quickly drains through this underground tile system-today made mostly of plastic-and flows directly into nearby streams.
After one dumping, the women measured the number of E. coli bacteria in a county drain at 1.34 million colonies per 100 milliliters-more than 1,000 times the legal maximum for partial body contact. It's just one of more than fifty cases of illegal discharges they've documented at eleven dairy operations in the Hudson area. (The full findings are posted on their website, nocafos.org.)
The health effects of contamination can be immediate, and can include neurobehavioral dysfunctions.

Melmoth remembers the day in March 2003 when liquid manure Vreba-Hoff applied onto frozen ground ended up in a tributary of the St. Joseph River. The smell "made you nauseous right away," she remembers. She became so angry that she stopped her work at the greenhouse for Recipe Gardens and painted a sign, which she attached to her truck, that read "Stop cow shit."
Describing herself as a "rational" person ("I'm a nurse"), Melmoth was surprised by the intensity of her reaction-until she learned that hydrogen sulfide gas not only can cause flulike symptoms but also can trigger anger attacks.

Manure madness
Lynn Henning's father-in-law and mother-in-law, Gerald and {Cecilia} Henning, live less than 100 feet from the 700-cow Hartland Farms CAFO. Last April, both were diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning by Dr. Kaye Kilburn, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California. Kilburn wrote that {Cecilia} Henning had "many blind spots in her vision fields, color vision, abnormal balance with eyes open and with eyes closed, and greatly lengthened simple and choice reaction times." Her husband "has many blind spots, abnormal balance with eyes open, prolonged reaction time, slow blink reflex and grip strength." Kilburn concluded that "both Hennings show losses of functions that are characteristic of brains damaged by hydrogen sulfide. They are like workers exposed in oil or natural gas fields."

For more than two years, Gerald Henning called the Michigan Department of Agriculture hotline to complain about manure pollution near his farm, a terrible smell, and a problem with flies. In an ironic twist, his complaint finally drew public attention only after the elderly farmer was prosecuted for cursing in a telephone conversation with a public official-not because of the abnormal level of pollution or the couple's own health problems.

Melmoth said that after hearing Henning's story she began to look closer at the statistical map she and the other two women had created to document the spreading of liquid manure. "This winter it occurred to me how often Hartland Farms spreads next to Henning's property. One wouldn't even need to have neurological damage to make the kinds of calls he made, after watching his wife suffer."

Between 2000 and 2002, Kauffman, Henning, and Melmoth reported twenty-six illegal discharges of manure to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. But under governor John Engler, the department did not press charges against any of the polluting factory farms.

Michigan has 106 factory farms housing more than 1,000 "animal units" (714 cows equal 1,000 units). Yet the state has no mandatory permit system for water discharges, no inspection of manure lagoons, and no requirements for manure management. CAFOs do not even need building permits-as agricultural facilities they are exempt from such regulations. The milking machinery is inspected, but there is no regulation of the tail-end systems.
Anne Woiwode of the Sierra Club recalls a more progressive time during the 1980s, when Michigan actually enforced regulations and shut down some polluting agricultural operations. But piece by piece, she said, the Engler administration dismantled all of these regulations. Now the Michigan Air Quality Act specifically exempts any agricultural odors unless the state agriculture department specifically charges an operation with violating its "best practice guidelines," under Michigan's 1981 Right to Farm Act.
CAFO opponents suffered a heavy blow in 1999, when the Right to Farm Act was amended to prohibit local units of government from regulating any agricultural activities. CAFOs could henceforth be built wherever the owners wanted them, regardless of who lived nearby.

The Sierra Club increased its pressure on the Engler administration by filing a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking that the state's authority to run the clean water program be taken away. In 2001, Woiwode says, Michigan finally agreed to implement federal water-discharge permit requirements-but only for CAFOs that operate more than 1,000 animal units and have been found in violation of the Clean Water Act. Since the state has no monitoring system to identify such violations, it was an almost meaningless concession.

Finally, a fresh wind came with the election of governor Jennifer Granholm. According to Woiwode, during the winter of 2002-2003, just as the new administration of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was settling in, the Hudson area's ten dairy operations were discharging huge amounts of animal waste.

Discharging animal waste onto snow-covered soil is common in Michigan. But it's illegal in some European countries, and it's dangerous, because frozen ground greatly increases the amounts of fecal bacteria, nitrogen, and phosphorus that enter streams through snowmelt. In a four-month period, Melmoth and friends documented eighteen discharges of milk waste, liquid manure, and contaminated storm water-four times the average frequency of such discharges since CAFOs moved into the Hudson area.
The DEQ witnessed one of the worst ecological disasters caused by CAFOs in the country," says Woiwode. "These farms had too many facilities, too many animals, too little land, and improper handling of the waste. And when there was a combination of very cold winter weather and a sudden melt, this left waste all over the place, and people were literally horrified."

S: Department of Environmental Quality v. Vreba-Hoff Dairy
The state finally moved against polluting CAFOs this past September, when the MDEQ filed a civil lawsuit in Ingham County against Vreba-Hoff Dairy. The suit charges the company with unlawfully discharging agricultural wastes from its facilities into state-owned waters. The suit was based on an MDEQ investigation, which was triggered by the data gathered by the Hudson volunteers last spring.

"While Michigan rightly prides itself on a rich agricultural heritage, operations such as these that flout the law and pose an environmental threat to the waters of this state give all of agriculture a black eye," said MDEQ's new director, Steven Chester, in a press release. "The citizens of this state should not be subjected to the pollution generated by factory farms, and the DEQ will do what's necessary to pursue these violators."

Department spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley told the Observer that the MDEQ is asking Vreba-Hoff to reduce the number of cows at its Hudson facilities, and will prohibit any expansion until the problems are resolved. The MDEQ is also demanding that Vreba-Hoff construct a wastewater treatment system, apply for a groundwater permit, and notify the state department of any additional discharges-which will be subject to fines of up to $25,000 a day.
Vreba-Hoff spokesperson Cecilia Conway admits that there have been six incidents of "unplanned" manure discharges in the past. She says, however, that the farm has greatly stepped up its monitoring efforts to prevent such discharges from happening again.

Conway, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in 1960, says that Michigan's lawsuit is "more a politically oriented lawsuit than anything else." She points out that her entire family, the Vanderhoffs, including six siblings, live in the vicinity of their own farms. "We drink the same water. So why would we intentionally do something to our own families and children?"

The suit has drawn a much more enthusiastic response from the activists fighting factory farms.

"I'm pleasantly surprised about how far they took this case," says the Sierra Club's Woiwode. "We have seen under the leadership of Steve Chester, the new MDEQ director, a dramatic change in the direction of the state on environmental issues. This lawsuit is precedent-setting."
"It's hard to absorb it," admits Melmoth. "If you sat me down in front of the DEQ director and asked me what I wanted, everything in this civil order would be it."

The greenhouse farmer adds, "I never thought that they would take us that seriously. It's like a David against Goliath."

Melmoth says she feels hopeful that the Granholm administration's intervention will finally turn the tide in the CAFO battle. When her own current water-monitoring project ends this December, she expects to continue it in some form-but she also wants to take her commitment one step farther. The former Ann Arbor nurse wants to begin monitoring air pollution from the CAFOs, as well as tracking medical symptoms that might be caused by manure pollution.

She decided this one day in late August, after watching Hartland Farms employees spread liquid manure until late in the evening. Temperatures were in the high eighties, and clouds of dust and stench hung suspended in the air. "That's when it struck me that we probably had an air inversion," she says. On August 31 she noticed an outbreak of flies, which continued to be a problem for weeks afterward. DEQ inspectors weren't sure whether to attribute the outbreak to daily liquid manure applications on a hay field near Bakerlads Dairy, or to inadequately buried dead animals at Hartland Farms.

After recently being diagnosed with a serious lung disease, one woman who lives near Hartland Farms told Lynn Henning that she could no longer sleep at night and had to keep her windows closed. She also had diarrhea, and her well tested positive for coliform bacteria. The E. coli levels returned to normal before she was able to determine whether the CAFO was the cause.
Melmoth says that she has developed a cough herself and that other neighbors complain about headaches and burning eyes. Without air monitoring data, "I can't accuse these guys of causing it," she admits. "All I know is that respiratory diseases can be greatly exacerbated by these fumes."

Melmoth wants to continue what she's begun, because she loves the way of life she's discovered since moving to the countryside. After years of hard work, she's proud that she's succeeded in making a living as a farmer-especially since, unlike the dairy CAFOs, her plant and produce business has done it without any subsidies.

When Melmoth left Ann Arbor to live in Hillsdale County, she moved to a rural community with low population density, no major expressway, and little development. People were friendly to their neighbors, she says, even to the newcomers who came with their giant manure lagoons. A subtle rural code dictated that one should not speak badly about neighbors.
That last rule, at least, has since changed. "I have seen a slow realization among residents that this isn't right," says Melmoth. While the state is finally beginning to address the water issues, she says, it's done little to address CAFOs' impact on public health. "As a registered nurse, I can only refer people to a doctor," she says. "My goal is to make the government and the public aware that people are suffering."