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A Dutch Export To Michigan Raises A Stink

Pollution from high-profit factory farms attracts new scrutiny

August 6, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Carolyn Kelly

The state says manure from the Vreba-Hoff operation and eight other nearby livestock factories in Hillsdale and Lenawee Counties seriously harm local streams and lakes.

Stephen Vanderhoff’s life story reflects the Great American Dream. The 33-year-old son of Dutch natives who immigrated to Michigan in the 1960s, Mr. Vanderhoff grew up on a farm that had just five cows. Today he owns nearly 6,000 of them.

Mr. Vanderhoff’s family built a business in Hillsdale County, in south central Michigan, by taking advantage of land prices vastly cheaper, and environmental regulations far less stringent, than those in their native Netherlands. They now operate two of the state’s largest dairy farms, which operate under the name Vreba-Hoff Farms. Their cows are worth $4.5 million and produce 40,000 gallons of milk a day. The family also has a consulting business that, so far, has taught about 50 other Dutch families how to do what they did — move to America and become wealthy by building concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Although mainstream agriculture views CAFOs as models of farm efficiency, productivity, and profitability, many people living near such factory farms see them as major polluters that produce and fail to properly manage a deluge of manure. That is why for the past four years citizens near the Vreba-Hoff Farms have continually tested the local waterways and constantly filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. They allege that manure from the Vreba-Hoff operations and eight other nearby livestock factories — which generate a stench so foul that clothes exposed to it sometimes need repeated laundering before they are wearable again — seriously harm local streams and lakes. Their continued testing and complaining gradually brought close DEQ scrutiny to all 10 CAFOs in the area.

So Mr. Vanderhoff’s dream is now trapped in its own nightmare, which includes a DEQ water pollution lawsuit, continued community opposition, shifting federal and state regulations, and a new federal permitting program administered by the state for overseeing CAFOs. Yet, despite the increasing scrutiny, some environmentalists and local residents say that his and the other farms remain environmentally damaging and terrible to live near. They assert that far too much of the 120,000 gallons of manure the Vreba-Hoff farms produce every day finds its way into local waterways, and that the phosphorous, nitrogen, e coli bacteria, and other pollutants the manure contains is harming lakes, streams, and the aquatic life that depend on them.

Janet Kauffman, a local resident and member of Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, a group that wants to protect the environment from CAFOs, says it is hard to see much progress since the DEQ began issuing permits early last year.

“A year and a half later,” Ms. Kauffman said, “even the dairies recognize a problem, but nobody has a solution.”

Little Regulation, Plentiful Profit, Growing Confusion
Mr. Vanderhoff insists that he is now doing everything the DEQ requests, including expanding his manure holding lagoons, developing a partial waste treatment system, and halting wintertime manure spraying, a practice that often leads to serious runoff problems.

And despite a $50,000 DEQ fine and continuing pollution and legal problems, the two operations, known as Vreba-Hoff I and II, remain financially successful. That is because CAFOs, like Wal-Mart stores, get rich through high-volume sales of low-priced products. They eschew traditional pasture grazing in favor of crowding huge numbers of cows into sprawling buildings equipped with expensive machinery that feeds and milks in assembly-line fashion. But unlike the more traditional, albeit less profitable, dairy farms they are driving out of business, CAFOs produce so much manure that many of them have difficulty properly disposing of it. Most operations temporarily store manure in lagoons and use tanker trucks to transport and spray it onto nearby farm fields.  

For decades, Michigan CAFOs were completely unregulated and free to pollute because the state failed to enforce federal regulations passed in 1976. While it lasted, that lack of regulation contributed to a CAFO building boom in Michigan; according to the EPA, Michigan had no large CAFOs in 1976; today it has about 160. Now, responding to the growing uproar about their smell and environmental damage, the state is scrambling to impose long-delayed regulations on them.

“People get away with murder if no one seeks to enforce the law,” said Anne Woiwode, who, as director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, has long campaigned to bring regulation to Michigan’s factory farms. “The state was overtly violating the Clean Water Act in respect to CAFOs.”

Under strong pressure from a variety of citizen groups, including the Sierra Club, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Michigan Land Use Institute, and from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, former Republican Governor John Engler ordered the state DEQ to begin issuing federally required CAFO permits in January of 2002. The process was slowed, however, when the Bush administration revised federal CAFO rules in 2003, forcing the state to do the same thing.

Now most Michigan CAFOs are in regulatory limbo. Only about two dozen have actually received permits, according to a DEQ official. And while residents living around CAFOs agree that the DEQ now takes the problem seriously — the DEQ last week filed its second pollution lawsuit against a CAFO owned by a Vanderhoff family member in Dover Township, near Adrian —  some feel that the department’s new permitting program will yield little environmental improvement. Meanwhile, many CAFO farmers are rushing to catch up with the new regulations. Mr. Vanderhoff complains that he still does not know what qualifies as a violation of the law, and the DEQ admits that the system is quite complicated. 

An Offer They Can’t Refuse
Environmentalists who closely study CAFOs say that unless more stringent steps are taken to eliminate the water pollution that often accompanies them, water contamination will continue to grow. The combination of very large production and minimal costs for pollution control make CAFO farming a growth industry.

In fact, as the Vanderhoff family discovered, the industry is so profitable that it is not only driving most dairy farmers to switch to CAFOs, it is attracting people from faraway places to seek their fortunes with it. That includes the Netherlands, where land is expensive, environmental regulations are tight, and farmers must purchase “milk quotas” to sell their product. Because CAFOs are close to being either illegal or impossible there, Dutch dairy farmers are leaving the homeland and heading for the American heartland.

To these farmers, America is a land of unprecedented opportunity. Many are choosing to liquidate their assets in a country where a cow is worth $34,000 and take their cash and their families to America. They are helped by an obscure immigration law that allows them emigrate in exchange for making a minimum $1 million business investment in the United States. These farmers, as a result, are leveraging small, modestly profitable, but quite valuable European dairy farms into large, highly profitable, and polluting American ones.

The Vanderhoffs capitalized on this opportunity by building their own farms and then showing their fellow countrymen how to do the same thing. Cecilia Conway, Stephen Vanderhoff’s sister, is a partner in Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, a company that actively recruits Dutch farmers to come to the United States for a fee that she wouldn’t disclose. So far 37 families, most of them Dutch and all aided by Ms. Conway’s company, have moved to Michigan, Ohio, or Indiana to start CAFOs. Seven of them are in Michigan; 11 others are in development. Ms. Conway says that every farm helped by her company has succeeded.

The migration of Dutch farmers to the United States is now so strong that it has attracted the attention of Dutch Public Television, which visited south central Michigan in mid-July. Marjan Moolemaar, a correspondent for Dutch Public Television, said she was visiting the area because “50 families have moved to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan and there are more coming” and yet “nobody seems to know about it.”

Learning Curve
Since a new federal law began requiring farmers to obtain a CAFO permit before they start operation, Ms. Conway says that her consulting business has slowed. She also admits that the new regulations and increasing public scrutiny of her family’s farms underline the fact that the company has not been perfect. 

“We’ve made our mistakes in the past,” she said. But she blamed most of those problems on the new regulations, which she said are very complicated. She also cited problems with advice the Vreba-Hoff development company received from its own consultants, who she said were poorly informed. Ms. Conway also admits there was “an error made in manure application, there was a discharge. Adjustments needed to be made.” She said she is confident that her company is learning and such errors will not continue.

But John Klein, president of Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, who lives near the larger Vreba-Hoff operation, questions why CAFOs are essentially sticking their neighbors with the bill for their own learning curve. “We’re paying the price of their education,” he complained.

Just how much Mr. Vanderhoff is learning is unclear, though. Recently, when the DEQ deemed two local bodies of water near the Vreba-Hoff Farms as “impaired,” Mr. Vanderhoff insisted he was not responsible.

“They might be impaired, but it is me?” he asked. “I don’t think so.” He says broken septic systems or wetlands are more likely causing the pollution. He says that what is actually generating all the criticism about his farms are not environmental issues but the fact that many people find farms such as his socially unacceptable.

Mr. Vanderhoff, some of his neighbors, and environmentalists who say they want to clean up livestock factories such as his agree on one thing: The present regulations are inadequate. Mr. Vanderhoff thinks that making the definition of “discharge” less broad will help his operation.

“When we’re talking about zero discharge, we’re creating a situation that is almost unlivable,” he claimed. He added that, in his view, state and federal regulations requiring “zero discharge”, which means that farms cannot release any pollutants that violate water quality standards, is unrealistic and extreme. 

Environmentalists agree that the no-discharge policy is not working, but for different reasons. They say that the polluting discharges will stop only when farmers are forced to practice more effective and more expensive waste management techniques. As Mrs. Kauffman, coordinator of water testing for the ECCSM puts it, “There are so many alternative ways to handle waste.”  



LANSING, Dec. 28, 2004 -- The Vebra-Hoff Dairy Farms in Lenawee and Hillsdale have agreed to build a $1 million waste water treatment plant to manage a river of dairy cattle wastes in a more environmentally-sensitive manner. The agreement between the dairy operator and the state Department of Environmental Quality also calls for Vebra-Hoff Dairy Farms to pay a $50,000 civil fine and $25,000 more for partial reimbursement of the state environmental agency's enforcement costs.

The court-sanctioned agreement, which stemmed from a state lawsuit against the company, sets a new standard of environmental conduct for large factory farms that are gaining popularity in Michigan. The agreement, the first of its kind in Michigan, is intended to make the huge farms, which produce more fecal wastes than entire cities, responsible for the cost of assuring that the environment is not harmed by mass food production practices. Under the agreement Vebra-Hoff also will halt all land application of its wastes.

Stephanie Rudolph, a student at Haverford College and managing editor of the Bi-College News, reports and writes for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. Reach her at stephanie@mlui.org.

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