SALEM, Ohio – The date is Aug. 10, 2000.
A fiery crowd of approximately 175 gathers in western Putnam County, banding together to keep Dutch dairies out of their communities.
“The fly population is going to be outstanding,” a Lima doctor emphasizes.
“There is not a fly around that is not going to land on somebody’s manure, let loose maggots and then other flies will come around,” he testifies, according to meeting transcripts.
“Once that manure hits the ground, the bacteria are on the ground and that soil will be contaminated,” he declares.
Now, three years later, although some of the controversy has subsided, communities are still divided over the so-called “mega dairies” and complaints against them remain.
Residents say some neighbors are still out there every day, watching with binoculars for even the slightest manure slip-up and holding their noses in the air, sniffing for a faint farm odor to complain about.
“They have to be almost perfect to not get their name in the paper or get visits from the EPA,” said Glen Arnold, Putnam County extension ag agent.
Perfect or not, groups like Citizens of Putnam County for Clean Air and Water rally against the farms, citing manure management, odor and property devaluation as reasons for battling large-scale dairies.
The Putnam County activist group was founded in direct response to a Dutch dairyman’s decision to build a dairy in the area.
Hearing the news that test wells were already drilled near their home, Dave and Kathy Burkhart’s concerns intensified. But before making assumptions, Dave contacted the farmer who was working at a Michigan Dutch dairy until his own Putnam County farm was complete.
About 15 people made the trip to a farm near Hudson, Mich., and after hearing about the constant smell from the dairy’s neighbors, Kathy Burkhart had more concerns than ever.
“Our conclusion was that it would not be a good idea for our community,” she said.
With that decision, the Burkharts, with the help of an attorney, wrote a letter citing their concerns, got 100 signatures and gave it to the Dutch family.
Newspapers were flooded with letters to the editor, dairy and water experts were called time and time again, and lengthy, heated community meetings became the norm.
In the midst of the controversy, the concrete was being poured and the cows were arriving. The first Dutch dairy moved to Putnam County, only to be followed shortly thereafter by another one.
The real reasons
Depending on who you ask, the real reasons for opposition vary.
Some, like Eric and Kevin Homier of Homier and Sons equipment dealership in Continental, don’t understand why townsfolk feel the way they do.
While the Homiers have a biased viewpoint – their father, Bill, sold acreage where one of the Dutch dairies is located, and continues to raise crops for the farm – they look at pure economics.
When the Dutch families move to northwest Ohio, they have to buy groceries, new appliances, vehicles, clothes and furniture, not to mention new farm equipment from dealerships like Homiers.
Many in the area have debunked the mindset that the Dutchmen aren’t welcome because they’re operating large farms.
If it were an issue of herd size or concentrated animal units, the Homier brothers point fingers at Cooper Farms in nearby Oakwood. The hog-finishing operation has 10,000 feeders and nobody says a word, they said.
Supporters also want to know why a farmer in Leipsic has expanded his dairy to 700 cows and neighbors haven’t even noticed.
“They’re not on him near as bad. Now you tell me what the real problem is,” Eric Homier said, with all indications pointing toward fear of foreigners.
Kathy Burkhart disagrees. The sheer size of the operations is what provokes the antagonism.
It’s certainly not that they are foreign, Burkhart said adamantly, or that she’s opposed to agriculture – in fact, the Burkharts farmed early in their marriage and their parents farmed in the county all their lives.
“This is not sustainable agriculture; it’s factory farming,” she said, trying to distinguish between the two.
For the antagonists who claim groundwater pollution – both Homiers said some anti-farm residents are spreading the idea that they’ll all die from manure poisoning – supporters have one study on their side.
That study, conducted by Heidelberg College, tested groundwater and found that the majority of the cleanest wells in Ohio included those in Mercer, Auglaize, Defiance, Paulding and Putnam – counties with Dutch dairies and large livestock operations.
“If it were an issue of manure runoff, all of Mercer County would already be dead,” Kevin Homier said.
Smells like dairy
Just when much of the community thought the controversy was dying down after almost three years, the Dutch dairies applied for permits to expand, fueling more complaints from Citizens of Putnam County for Clean Air and Water.
“The odor last night was awful. It’s an odor that gets into your home, into your vehicles,” Burkhart said, stressing that the smell interferes with normal activities like sitting outside on a summer night.
“We don’t feel like clean air and drinking clean water is a luxury,” she continued. “That’s a necessity. We don’t live in a Third World country.”
Burkhart says she’s getting more calls than ever about odor from the farms and the callers are worried that if the farms triple in size, the smell will be even worse.
One of those calls, came June 3 from a woman who said a “truck that looked like a bulk milk truck” was “spraying liquid manure” for more than 11 hours near her home. Burkhart hurried to the scene, smelled a “horrible stench” and videotaped the truck in the field for documentation.
Burkhart said the caller’s five children had to leave the home because of the smell.
Although Burkhart lives a half-mile from a Dutch dairy, supporters reject claims that farm odors keep people indoors.
The brothers at Homier and Sons, also located near a Dutch dairy and in the path of whatever wind-borne stench there may be, feel differently about the degree of odor.
Both men agree that manure does smell, but also agree that spreading it has to be done. They estimate those smells blow uptown six to seven days a year, but urge people to think before they complain.
“You should get a whiff of the smell at the General Motors foundry in Defiance. It’s horrible, definitely worse than any farm. But no one says anything because those are good-paying jobs,” Eric Homier said.
Although Homier acknowledges complaints against the farms come from various people, he maintains that the townsfolk, not the farm families, make the biggest fuss.
‘Money and guts’
Yet farm families have their own complaints, too.
Jealousy isn’t uncommon between people when one gets bigger, more modern equipment. With unknown farmers coming to the area and building brand-new, top-notch facilities, the situation is no different.
“There’s nothing stopping any local guy [from expanding] other than money and guts,” Kevin Homier said.
For local farmers who are opposed, dairy expert Tim Demland points out one factor: The Dutch dairies are ahead of their American counterparts in technology and capital.
“These operations are coming in where most guys should have been already,” said Demland, Putnam County extension association in dairy industry enhancement. He notes most farms in Putnam County have missed two generations of expansion because they lack capital to take on the project.
For them, it’s jealousy and fear of being crowded from the marketplace, he said.
But it shouldn’t be a fear.
Ohio dairymen meet only 95 percent of the state’s production needs, so there’s no real threat for smaller farmers to be afraid of being driven from their livelihood, Demland said.
“To get around [regulations], they come in here and squeak by every way they can to get by the rules and regulations. They have it down to a science,” said a Defiance County resident at the August 2000 forum.
Demland disagrees that the Dutch dairymen evade environmental permits by starting up and then hovering around 690 cows.
Livestock operations of all sizes must meet general environmental protection regulations. The Ohio Department of Agriculture regulates large livestock facilities through permitting and operating regulations. To be kept under the state’s watchful eye, a farm must have 1,000 animal units. In this case, 700 dairy cows meets that guideline.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations must also be met.
Although Ohio State’s Glen Arnold acknowledges that the Dutch dairymen have every right to be here, the farms need to make some changes.
One of Arnold’s top recommendations is improved manure storage to prevent future runoff. Both Putnam County dairies have admitted to manure spills.
Yet, Arnold says their quick cleanups spoke louder than words and showed that even with the fierce resistance, they want the best for their community.
As their extension agent, he also stresses the importance of windbreaks to cut down on odor.
In addition, because of the flat landscape, the dairies are very visible and “people smell with their eyes,” Arnold said.
Here to stay
“These guys are a lot braver than me,” Homier said, stressing that the families immigrate to an unknown land, often leaving behind farming legacies, and attempt to make a go of the dairy lifestyle.
For the Homiers, and many they know, the Dutch dairies are there to stay.
“If they’re going to be here, we want them to be successful,” Arnold said.
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