Undercover investigation:The shocking cost of US 'mega-dairies'

With planning permission for Britain's biggest dairy at Nocton about to be re-submitted, The Ecologist travels to California to examine intensive milk production - and finds factory farms, conflict, intimidation, pesticides, pollution and small-scale farmers driven out of business...
The children became ill, the animals are dying and I am ill...

‘You better get out of here or your gonna get your ass kicked or worse,’ the leathery-faced farmer slurred, picking his words carefully as we pulled up outside his milking parlour. It was coming to the end of our first day in the US, and despite our best efforts to persuade the farmers otherwise, it was clear that journalists are not welcome in this part of the world.

Far from the glittering lights and well trodden-tourist paths that people normally associate with California, the vast udders of America’s dairy industry run through the Central Valley, a rarely-visited arid plain that stretches down the state, wedged in between the Sierra foothills and the Californian coast.

This is the breadbasket of the USA, where almond farms, grapes and corn are carved out of the scrubby desert and grown on eye-wateringly large scales. It is also home to the largest dairies on the planet, a concentration of several hundred milk farms so vast, that in Tulare county alone, there are over 900,000 cows, producing in excess of a billion dollars worth of milk each year.

But as an Ecologist investigation carried out in conjunction with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has discovered, the Central Valley has also become a battleground for an unreported conflict, pitting community activists and family farmers against the might of mega dairy farms that have taken root here.

Factory or farm?

For a first-time visitor, the sight and scale of a mega dairy is overwhelming; enormous open-air sheds, mountains of feed, million-gallon pools of slurry and thousands upon thousands of listless cows. Granted access by disgruntled dairy employees, we were able to observe a mega dairy in operation. More akin to a factory production line than a farm long lines of cows could be seen stumbling over outstretched udders as they were driven back and forth to the robotic-like, rotary-milking parlours.

It is a continual daily cycle that stops only when the milk output begins to tail off, and the animals are either re-impregnated or sent off to slaughter; burnt out and discarded after only a few years of life on the factory floor. Animals in American mega dairies will never see a patch of grass in their life, and the only respite comes from shade in the dusty open-air lots where they wait between milking. Even here the animals will not get a chance to really rest; high-milk yielding cows suffer from chronic ‘negative energy balance’, where the cow uses more energy in making milk that she can physically take in by eating, losing body condition as a result.

The Holstein is the favoured breed of choice for most mega dairies, their towering bony frames contrasting wildly with bulging vein-filled udders swinging underneath them. Milk produced by them is of a lower quality with a higher pus content in the milk than that produced by other cow breeds, but what these freakishly-bred animals lack in quality, they make up for in quantity: milked three times a day and propped up with growth hormones to boost milk production, and antibiotics to stave off frequent infections, milk output in the Holstein has doubled in the last 40 years alone.

The children became ill, the animals are dying and I am ill...

Flies and nitrates

It’s not just the animals that suffer. Tom Frantz is a retired schoolteacher and grew up in Shafter, a small town in Tulare County. ‘Until 1996, there weren't any dairies near me, then we got the first mega dairy situated close to here, followed by several others. Within a couple of years at the local school we had two big problems that have never existed before… the school was invaded by hoards of flies, nasty biting flies, clogging the water coolers and forcing the teachers to hang fly strips in the middle of each classroom. It changed things, changed the atmosphere of the school. Then nitrates in the water showed up. The school had always used water from its own well in the past, but suddenly the nitrate level doubled, then tripled, making it unsafe to drink,’ he told The Ecologist.

Intensive dairy
Traditional US dairies have been threatened by the arrival of intensive farms. Photo: WSPA

Tom formed a community action group, one of a dozen that have sprung up in recent years, to try to stop more dairies from encroaching on communities. His group has sued two mega dairies to date and has successfully pressured both the school boards and the town council to put in place buffer zones, banning mega dairies from being built too close to the town. In the midst of costly legal battles however, Tom has been threatened and now lives with restraining orders in place against overly aggressive dairymen living nearby.

Mega dairies also bring an invisible threat to the Central Valley, producing high quantities of gases leading to smog and particulate pollution. According to the American Lung Association, pollution from industrial agriculture operations ‘poses a significant health threat for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Children, adolescents, seniors, people with asthma and chronic lung diseases, people with chronic heart disease and diabetics are most at risk.’

It is no coincidence that dairy counties such as Tulare or Bakersfield have some of the highest rates of ozone and fine particulate matter in the USA, equaling and in some cases exceeding the smog-infested city of LA further South. A medical study published in 2004 found that one in very four children in these counties have asthma. ‘Mega dairies are effectively being subsidised by our lungs,’ Tom says.


Teresa DeAnda is a mother of seven children and full-time Central Valley Representative of Californians for Pesticide Reform. She is, by her own admission, an unlikely activist: ‘I didn't even know what that word meant for the first few years that I did this job,' she told The Ecologist. ‘I was always interested in reading the news about air pollution and I knew air quality was getting worse. I knew that was all bad, then I read an article that they wanted to put in a dairy of 5,000 cows in Kings county nearby and I was so upset, and I said “oh my gosh I got to go over there”.’
With the assistance of the Council for Race Poverty and the Environment, Teresa began to work full time on pesticide issues and air quality – fighting against pollution on behalf of the voiceless Hispanic populations living nearby. The more she looked into the problem, the more frustrated she became. ‘There have been studies done looking at why polluting industries move to certain areas; these industries actually look for neighbors who are Hispanic, low income, poor, of colour and are catholic,’ she says. ‘And it makes me so angry, big dairies pollute until water boards crack down on them, so then the dairies sell up and move here… where nobody complains,’ she says.

Increasing demand for milk is leading to more factory farms for dairy cows. Photo: WSPA

Driving along the highway, Teresa waves at countless gangs of migrant workers as they work in lines, silently packing grapes. A few miles out of town fruit fields give way to vast fields of corn and alfalfa, crops all grown to feed the cows in the mega dairies. We are en route to meet Jorge, a Salvadorian worker whose family have experienced the impact of pesticides used to grow crops for cattle. Teresa explains that Jorge is an exception to the rule, usually people here don't want to speak out as 'they could lose their jobs and their homes... they're scared.'

Threats and intimidation

Jorge is scared too, he talks but not on camera, and is quick to explain why. ‘Those who are illegal immigrants are told that they are going to call immigration [officials] to get them; another threat is that they are going to send someone, if you don't leave they will kill you,’ he says, ‘and that is not good.’

He complains bitterly about the pesticides used to grow cattle feed: ‘I used to have cows, but they all died… I had canaries they all died… I had goats, but I sold them because they were dying too; they had stomach problems and the babies were also dying…’

Jorge guides us around his smallholding. He has a few horses left, but for the most part the stables are empty, weeds sprouting from the dust. He points to the few remaining fruit trees his family planted, bare stems save for a few shriveled brown leaves at the end of each branch. "When I came here my financial situation was good and I was comfortable… it [pesticide spraying] has had a very bad impact because the children became ill, the animals are dying, I am ill,’ he says.

Not all Californian dairies are operating on such a large scale. Paul Bianci tends a small herd of Jersey cows, which spend much of the year grazing on pasture in the rolling hills of Northern California. In scale and sight, Paul’s farm resembles a British farm, and is perhaps a decent barometer of what mega dairies might mean for British farmers if they come to Britain. ‘We just can't compete with them… they just put the little people out of business" he told us. We heard similar complaints from other small farmers we met; that economies of scale make it virtually impossible to compete with mega dairies who are milking herds of cows up to a hundred times bigger than smaller family farms, driving down milk prices and forcing family farmers to sell up.

Dairy declines

Albert Strauss, who runs a successful organic dairy, has pioneered an alternative system to provide California with a more sustainable milk supply: 'We lose 55 of our dairies each year, and in the last 40 years in our district alone we have gone from 120 dairies to 23...so it's a bit drastic. Mega dairies are continuing the trend away from sustainable farming, and it's happening because mega dairies dominate because they are the biggest agricultural commodity in the USA, and when you have big dairies controlling most of the milk supply, you have a lot more political power.'

The problem isn’t just confined to California, according to the USDA statistics 33,000 dairies disappeared nationwide between 1997-2002.

Our last day in California is spent at Turlock County Fair, a mom and pop type family affair where dairy farmers from the Central valley help their children to show prize animals in front of the judges. Behind the showground, children are busy grooming the prize cows that will soon be led out into the arena, whilst parents sit and chat over beers nearby. It is a timeless scene from small–town America, but despite the friendly feel of the place, few want to talk to the journalists asking questions about mega dairies; we are met with a wall of silence, people too scared to be seen talking about the problems they face.

Finally we meet Paul Clarent, a Stetson-wearing, unapologetic mega-dairy owner, who flatly rejects the concerns of smaller farmers we had spoken with during the week: ‘You’ve got to expand to compete with the big guys.. that’s just business and that’s life, it’s not fair all the time,’ he said. As we are preparing to leave the fair an elderly farmer beckons us over away from the crowds and offers up a different reality. ‘Listen, we run a dairy and you know we will probably go out of business in the next two or three years. We are simply not big enough to compete with the big dairies… my grandparents, my parents, my wife and I did this to pass on to our kids and now it’s going to die with my daughter’s generation. It’s pretty sad,’ he said.

Click here for more information on WSPA's campaign against Nocton

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