The Land of Stinkin’: When a Mega Dairy Takes Over | Civil Eats

The Land of Stinkin’: When a Mega Dairy Takes Over

Imagine a series of pits that, if combined, would cover an area 40 acres in size carved 20 feet deep. Laid out as a perfect square, each side is 1,320 feet long, enough to hold 16 football fields. Now imagine it full of millions of gallons of festering manure from over 5,000 dairy cows plunked down into rural Jo Daviess County in northern Illinois. Imagine also, that these cesspools would be excavated from a porous Karst geological formation, with the propensity to percolate directly into the groundwater, along with a cocktail of nitrates, phosphorous, hydrogen sulfide, bacteria, and other substances like antibiotic drugs.

If your state’s Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t bother fulfilling its obligations to permit such potential pollution hazards under the Clean Water Act, you have little choice but to start your own citizen activist organization. For three years, the HOMES group (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) has been emptying its pockets for attorneys fees, organizing rallies, documenting abuses, and constructing a legal case against a California mega-dairy that wants to—as they see it—invade their community, an agricultural region with many legacy farms spanning multiple generations.

The challenge before the HOMES group is made all the more difficult because Illinois communities have lost the ability to refuse the zoning of an industrial animal factory operation in their area to protect public health. “Local control” over such decisions, in Illinois as in many other states, has been relegated to the state level. In fact, just this week a HOMES’ group appeal was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court, affirming that the state’s Department of Agriculture has the ultimate say in CAFO siting decisions. It also limits citizens’ rights to sue the Department of Agriculture for improper implementation or enforcement of regulations.

I participated in a community discussion about CAFOs sponsored by the HOMES group last week. It was an opportunity to listen to talks from long-time activists Dr. Kendall Thu of Northern Illinois University (contributor of a great essay to my CAFO book) and Dr. John Ikerd, retired agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, whose work greatly informed the book’s pieces on the community impacts of industrial animal factory agriculture. I also had a good chance to meet other committed anti-CAFO activists, such as grain farmer Karen Hudson and public interest attorney Danielle Diamond, both with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

This leg of the CAFO outreach campaign started about an hour outside of  Chicago, driving west and south through the Land of Lincoln, known by the anti-CAFO activists as the Land of Stinkin’. There are over 3,200 CAFOs in the state, primarily hog and dairy operations. To pump a steady stream of feed into these protein factories, Illinois produces a staggering amount of corn. We drove for hours and hours at the 65 mph speed limit, passing field after monoculture field of corn, fields right up to the highway, right up to farm houses, right next to mutated suburban developments with barely a forest or hedgerow or clump of trees in sight. In this day of soaring commodity prices, soaring demand for animal feed and ethanol,  farms are planted, as they say, “fencerow to fencerow.”

The mega-dairy that the HOMES citizen activist group is fighting against is owned by A. J. Bos, a corporate agribusiness from California. It has already established one of the country’s largest dairies in northeastern Oregon, Threemile Canyon, which I have visited and am told is now the third largest emitter of airborne ammonia in the nation—no small achievement if true. One of the departing acts of public service of the Bush administration was to remove Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on the reporting of air emissions including ammonia, an airborne pollutant and health hazard that can literally travel for miles from a livestock operation. The CAFO industry has been given a get out of jail free card when it comes to Clean Air Act violations.

This large-scale industrial assault is set against the backdrop of the unraveling Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan and I can’t help thinking of the out of control scale of our industrial operations. The CAFO industry is essentially telling us they’re too big to fail, we need their massive confinement systems if we want a cheap and abundant food supply.

The costs of polluting a community’s groundwater, eroding their living standards, degrading their air quality and filling the countryside with the odors of thousands of cows, never allowed to touch a bland of grass, and generating more manure than milk on a daily basis are simply the price of cheap dairy products. What they don’t say is that the jobs a CAFO actually brings to an area will most likely be very few and low paying. It will also spell the end for numerous small and mid-size independent producers in the region. And in time, once a community is opened up to the animal factory industry, it begins a downward economic spiral with few other development options.

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Glimmers of hope remain. Although construction of the mega-dairy is well underway, the barns remain incomplete and no animals are confined yet. Last October, a bright purple leachate of rotting silage, applied onto fields of the A. J. Bos land, contaminated a tributary to the Apple River. As a result, the US EPA is now questioning whether this CAFO can possibly be a “zero discharge facility” as the corporation has alleged. (That’s essentially the way the system works. A CAFO promises they are not going to discharge, and unless challenged, the government believes them.)

Meanwhile, a second citizens’ activist group, Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, is successfully petitioning the US EPA to withdraw the Illinois EPA’s Clean Water Act permitting authority because of their failure to properly regulate existing CAFOs. The pressure is now on the Illinois EPA to step up their regulatory oversight or risk US EPA taking over administration of the Clean Water Act in the state.

In northern Illinois, and across the country, everyday citizens are doing the work of the state and federal government to prevent a complete fouling of their communities by industrial animal factories. This is hardly the time to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, a pursuit senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle are currently attempting.

In many states, the Clean Water Act remains one of the only tools that offers citizens any kind of legal recourse and environmental protection from installations such as shit spewing absentee landowner corporate mega-dairies. In an age of increasing voluntary corporate compliance, community self-preservation hangs by barely a thread.


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Originally published on Me and My Planet

Dan Imhoff is the author of multiple books about the food system, including Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill and CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, (winner of the Nautilus 2011 Gold Prize for Investigative Reporting). Find out more at Read more >

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  1. I'm always glad to see people working on this issue. You can find links to Ikerd pieces on how CAFOs damage our economy and reduce jobs creation by clicking my name. That then leads to 59 studies, for examples, in his "CAFOs VS Rural Communities."

    One huge challenge is that most of the food movement accidentally supported pro CAFO policies in the last farm bill. Here's how it happened. Subsidies are what got huge attention. They're correlated (since 1961, but not before, in the early years of decline,) with all of the cheap corn problems and policies. Yes, they are policies, and somehow related. Unfortunately people thought subsidy reforms would fix it. That's not supported by the evidence (beyond mere correlations). (See my YouTube videos "Michael Pollan Rebuttal 1" and "...2" for four sets of evidence.) Pollan has told me personally that he knows some of the evidence, but I'm yet to see where he's said that online, at the New York Times, or in YouTube videos, or in films.

    One reason I mention this here is that Dan Imhoff, in his book Food Fight, gives false analysis (basically as I've described above) of this problem. He also gives this false analysis in YouTube videos (see some video examples, including one from Imhoff, and my comments to them videos there, and click my name for links to the main online documentation that backs up this point about subsidies, which is understood by IATP, Food and Water Watch, APAC, GDAE, the Africa Group at WTO, and La Via Campesina's world peasant movement. For policies to effectively fix this (and totally replace) farm commodity subsidies, see the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition.

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