Idaho’s Got Milk, Meat, Noxious Environmental Problems

Beef and dairy factory farms have turned the Potato State into the land of milk and cow manure.

“When I moved to Idaho I had this image in my mind of a cow on an emerald green pasture,” relates Alma Hasse, 51, a transplanted Californian who in May 2005 purchased what she and her husband viewed as their dream retirement farm—a spread of land in the western part of the state. “What we didn’t know was that over the ridge was a 7,500-head Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” she continues. During the first few days in their new home Alma and hubby were mystified by the stench that permeated their property. A friendly neighbor laughed when Hasse questioned her about the foul odor—then alerted her to the source of the problem. “My heart sank in my chest,” she says. “We had been in Idaho long enough that I knew what a CAFO was and I did not want to be near one.”

Today, Hasse is the executive director of ICARE (Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment), a non-profit “pro-agriculture organization that promotes safe, healthy, affordable food … and the economic viability and sustainability of our rural communities and farms.” As a former card-carrying Republican who twice voted for George W. Bush, she never imagined herself as an environmental advocate. “I thought when I moved to Idaho that I was going to be a pig in a blanket,” referring to the fact that Idaho is an overwhelmingly “red” state. “But when I moved here I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I’ve landed on an alien planet.’”

Hasse’s transformation from die-hard Republican to founder of ICARE didn’t take place overnight. In February 2006 an overloaded triple tractor trailer spilled potato processing waste on the road adjacent to her property. As it turns out, the truck was en route from Ore-Ida’s production facility in Ontario, Oregon, to her neighbor’s feed lot—the waste slated to be used as feed for his cattle.

“I saw the spill and walked outside and the smell was so horrific it just about knocked me over,” she recalls. Figuring that anything that smells that bad can’t be good for you, she complained to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA). Word of her complaint got back to the CAFO owner, who sent a loader to scrape the waste off the road, and then proceeded to dump it on the Hasse’s property. The incident prompted her to begin investigating the practices of CAFOs across the state, and she soon decided to make it her mission to raise awareness about the impact of factory farms on both the environment and small family farmers.

Organic vs. Corporate Organic vs. CAFOs
Richard Parrott, 69, of Parrott’s Family Farm (est. 1913) in Berger, Idaho, is a shining example of the kind of small farmer who is affected by—and offended by—the practices of CAFOs. In particular, he takes umbrage at the arrogance of CAFO operators, who, he says, act as though rules and regulations shouldn’t apply to them. Parrott, who sells certified organic beef at Farmers’ Markets, via the Internet, and to select high-end stores in nearby resort towns like Sun Valley, is proud that he makes every effort to farm in a responsible, sustainable manner.

For his part, he categorizes farms not so much by size, but by their negative impact (or lack thereof) on the surrounding community. So, broadly speaking, “an organic operation doesn’t interfere with its neighbors. It is not a pest in the neighborhood,” he advises. Meanwhile, he defines “corporate organic” (Horizon, for example) as an operation that generally doesn’t intrude on its neighbors, but doesn’t buy from neighbors either, which he regards as not entirely noble. As for CAFOs, both Parrott and Hasse agree that “if you need a whole industry to deal with your s**t, you’re a CAFO. A small family farmer doesn’t need a contract to haul manure away, and doesn’t need his own fleet of manure haulers,” notes Hasse.

These days, Parrott is especially concerned that there now upwards of 150 CAFOs in Idaho’s Magic Valley (Hasse calls it the Tragic Valley), a region in the south-central part of the state encompassing eight counties. “Each one of those is a dairy with a lagoon—or multiple lagoons” he says, “which leak a mixture of manure, urine, antibiotics, hormones, iodine, heavy metals, and bacteria into the groundwater, or contaminates surface water,” finishes Hasse.

Yet impact on water quality is just the tip of the environmental iceberg. Elevated rates of asthma are common in areas where CAFOs are located, hardly a surprise considering that homeowners find their homes under a nearly ever-present cloud of dust, pulverized fecal matter, ammonia and methanol, not to mention invisible particulate matter.

Never mind the smell of all the manure, which can be overpowering for residents and passerby’s alike. That’s a not insignificant problem in the Magic Valley, which is home to an estimated 1.2 million dairy cows. Yet “smell is not an offense,” notes Parrott. “They can stink all they want because they [CAFOs] have managed to stop all legislation on that.”

As one might expect, when a beef or dairy CAFO moves into an area, homeowners almost inevitably find that the value of their property takes a tumble. “The industry likes to say that [the complainers] are just a bunch of city folks that don’t know what country life is all about. But most of the time inhabitants were already there and the CAFOs intruded on them,” counters Hasse.

Predictably, CAFO operators don’t have much sympathy for homeowners. “Too bad, so sad. If you don’t like it—sell” sums up the prevailing attitude, says Hasse. “And when they can’t sell, the dairyman comes in and makes an offer for pennies on the dollar.”  

Cows and California
One might wonder how a state that has long been associated with potatoes became a mecca for mega-sized beef and dairy operations. “We can thank California,” explains Hasse, noting that in the mid-nineties dairymen began moving large-scale operations from the Golden State, where development was encroaching on factory farms and environmental controversies were beginning to arise. “Californians are known for not putting up with that kind of crap—no pun intended,” continues Hasse, who says that CAFO owners turned to Idaho and Washington, which looked like attractive destinations because of “our cheap ground, our willing political climate, our cheap utilities, and inexpensive feed.”

In theory, the increased dairy and beef production in Idaho could be a boon to local communities, assuming the CAFOs were better regulated, and if locals truly benefitted from their presence. “The problem with our industrial food system is that there’s not nearly enough oversight,” assesses Hasse, which perhaps explains why the trucks that are hauling manure are often the same trucks that haul the feed used to nourish the cows. “Even if feed tests positive for E. coli 0157:H7 [a strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli and a cause of foodborne illness], a producer can knowingly feed it to his cows. Is that a system designed to protect consumers? I don’t think so,” she says. 

And though there are some regulations in place, those rules are not necessarily enforced. For instance, CAFOs “are allowed to leach up to 1,000 gallons [of waste water] per acre per day. The problem is that nobody is tracking what sort of seepage is actually occurring,” laments Hasse. “And ISDA is notorious for not following up on complaints,” she continues. “When they do, it’s usually after the producer has been notified that a complaint has been filed, so that by the time an inspector gets there, whatever was called in about has been abated.”

Meanwhile, it’s clear that rural communities in Idaho aren’t seeing much benefit from the influx of CAFOs. “All you need to do is drive through the streets of Jerome [a city of 11,000 just north of Twin Falls] and look around you,” maintains Hasse. “Even though there are supposedly millions of dollars coming in to these communities, I challenge you to show me where [the money] is, other than the checking accounts of agribusiness and the pockets of shareholders.”

CAFO operators don’t have a reputation for being good employers, either. “It’s a common industry practice for there to be no doors in the bathrooms, so employees do their business and get in and out quickly,” alleges Hasse. And God forbid a worker reports an on-the-job injury. “A worker will get hurt—there will be a hoof print in the middle of his forehead—and when the doctor says, ‘What happened?’ he’ll say, ‘I fell off my bike.’” In other words, he won’t say he was injured on the job, no doubt for fear of being deported.

The bottom line is that “you have all these externalities that occur with the production of factory farms, which are never paid for by the industry,” says Hasse, noting that the livestock trucks, feed haulers, and manure haulers tear up the rural, secondary roads (which weren’t designed for that sort of traffic and weight), yet it’s left to taxpayers to pay for the repairs. “Most of the owners would sit there and badmouth a single mother who is getting government assistance. Yet those are the same guys that are sucking up at the federal subsidy welfare trough day in and day out.”

It’s clear, though, that CAFO owners would prefer that the public not see the conditions at their farms, which explains why many are implementing obstructed view designs. Take a drive down Bob Barton Highway (which runs between I-84 and the Snake River in the Magic Valley), and you’ll find one CAFO after another. Yet views of many of the animal pens are blocked by bales of hay stacked one on top of the other. To be sure, the cows at many of the operations don’t look healthy; among other things, their udders look distended and painfully inflamed, and many animals seem lame. And since their tails have been docked, they lack the ability to effectively swat flies.

“One of the things we hear from the dairy industry is that they are the biggest animal advocates. But the way the cows are abused, it’s clear they are pretty far down on the list of advocates. The animals are a commodity to them,” concludes Hasse.

Chickens and Eggs
Of particular concern for Hasse and Parrott is that poulty CAFOs seem poised to invade the state. (A Minnesota-based poultry CAFO, Sparboe Farms, recently made headlines after a video by the group Mercy for Animals illustrated cruelty at five company facilities, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to the company saying the inspectors had found “serious violations” of federal regulations designed to prevent Salmonella. Both McDonald’s and Target subsequently announced that they were dropping Sparboe as a supplier of eggs.)

At the moment, there are only three—going on four—chicken CAFOs in Idaho, plus a proposal for a chicken processing plant. “But we are in the bull’s-eye for egg producers coming from California because of the great work the Humane Society has done there,” says Hasse.

It also explains why factory farm owners go out of their way to try to discredit Hasse and ICARE. “I always get a little irritated when people call me anti-farmer, because I’m a farmer myself,” noting that her farm grows grass hay and alfalfa. She also takes the occasional threats and bullying in stride, somewhat comforted by the fact that she’s licensed to carry a concealed firearm and is frequently packing heat.

“You won’t find a bigger advocate for small family farmers and ranchers and dairymen,” she maintains. One thing she won’t do, however, is to eat meat (unless she knows where it comes from), and believes many others would do the same, if they only knew the truth about factory farms. “I could talk about CAFOs till the cows come home,” quips Hasse, but “if the American consumer truly understood what happens in the industrial food production system, they would never buy those products.”