Adding insult to the injury of a terrible 2009, the national media turned on modern agriculture and dairy farmers this fall.
From Time magazine to the New York Times, today’s farms were declared unsustainable: “Unless
Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs - and bland taste,” Bryan Walsh wrote in Time’s cover story August 21.
In September, the New York Times piled on, focusing on dairy farms in an article and a brief video documentary produced for its “Toxic Waters” series.
“Many of the agricultural pollutants that contaminate drinking water sources are often subject only to state or county regulations. And those laws have failed to protect some residents living nearby,” Charles Duhigg wrote in a September 17 New York Times piece that opened with a description of dairy farms near Morrison, Wis.
“In Morrison, more than 100 wells were polluted by agricultural runoff within a few months, according to local officials. As parasites and bacteria seeped into drinking water, residents suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections,” the New York Times article stated.
This bad press coincides with record losses in the dairy industry. A Wisconsin agricultural banker recently pegged 2009 average earnings per cow at -$720 or an annual loss of $72,000 on a 100-cow Wisconsin farm; $720,000 on a 1,000-cow herd.
And as media decried the practices on some farms, Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Association sounded an alarm in October: “State and Federal agencies are in the midst of implementing and proposing a daunting series of new regulations that will make it even more difficult for the Wisconsin dairy industry, the cornerstone of our state’s economy, to remain competitive,” a DBA news release began.
When it rains, it pours.
A response to the media attacks is mandatory. The nation’s agricultural community must take on essay journalism that denigrates the practices and technology that feeds a growing world. And we must denounce and correct articles that assume one less-than-perfect farm represents an entire nation of caring farmers.
In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association has partnered this fall with Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and producer organizations to create a new communications effort to tell the story of modern dairy farming. The plan builds on WMMB’s Dairy Impact information - an eight-year effort that has made the economic impact of Wisconsin’s dairy industry household news in America’s Dairyland.
In October, WMMB assigned funds to illuminate more than the employment, tax dollars and strong rural communities that dairy provides. Modern dairy farms emphasize the comfort of dairy cows, labor-saving technology, and smart use of manure as an energy source and a natural nutrient for cropland. Wisconsin deserves to tell the world that its dairy farmers care about their land, their communities and their cows.
The warning from Dairy Business Association regarding state and federal regulation is another flank in the assault on modern farming. In an October 21 news release, DBA listed 11 rising regulatory issues.
The list includes restrictions on application of manure, changes to construction standards for manure storage structures and requirements to meet a new technical standard for construction of feed storage areas. Another key concern is the regulation of the nutrient phosphorus.
Like dairy processing plants in Wisconsin, dairy farms are facing new limits on phosphorus emissions into surface waters. Certain rivers in Wisconsin will earn a TMDL (total maximum daily load) for phosphorus, creating sharply lower limits on phosphorus (manure) application by farmers, and lower limits for phosphorus in wastewater treated by dairy processors. In addition, farms in every watershed (non-TMDL) will see lower phosphorus limits.
DBA's concern is that regulation is racing ahead of sound science for most of these new requirements: Dairy farmers “have a greater understanding of environmental stewardship than ever before,” DBA president Jerry Meissner wrote. “We recognize our responsibility to protect the natural resources. We drink the same water and breathe the same air as our neighbors.”
Meissner’s comments reflect the frustration dairy farms have felt with their milk checks and the media in 2009: “We support the ‘zero discharge’ standard that all permitted dairy facilities must meet to protect
Wisconsin’s precious water resources. However, we believe it’s time to pause from this race to over-regulate and truly understand the science and impact of our existing regulations before adding more. It seems to be ‘open season’ for adding new regulations to dairy farmers and they come with enormous costs.” r
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
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