EPA has dairy farmers crying over spilled milk

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 8, 2011

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post
Dairy farmers occasionally have some spilled milk in the dairy barn. Usually it is a small amount, and they just hose it down the drain.
Sometimes milk from a certain cow can’t be used because she has been given medication. The cow still has to be milked, and that tainted milk has to be disposed of. This milk runs into a containment lagoon, by way of a the same drain.
Good milk is pumped into a holding tank, the main storage facility for milk, until picked up by a tank truck. Those holding tanks are the principal area of concern, but any spilled milk or any unusable milk will be regulated also.
The butterfat content of milk has oil, though it is considered an edible and non-petroleum oil. Farmers already must adhere to EPA regulations for their fuel storage tanks.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently ruled that it now will have jurisdiction over spilled milk. When granted the power to issue regulations to protect against oil spills, the EPA has taken action to avoid repeats of major spills such as the Exxon Valdez tanker spill and the BP disaster in the gulf.
Now the EPA is extending that to dairy farmers, saying that milk contains oil, and that they are the responsible government organization to control any spills. Main targets of the EPA will be the large producers and milk companies, but modest dairy farms are on the list also.
If current regulations hold, dairy farmers throughout the United States will have to adhere to more government guidelines. They will have to develop emergency action plans in the event of a milk catastrophe. First responders will have to be trained for possible spills, and containment facilities will have to be set up to isolate the spill.
More required and ongoing training will add to a farmer’s workday. The whole process will cost the farmer time and money, and could result in the higher price of all milk products.
The EPA will also create new jobs as it hires inspectors to visit farms and monitor the mandated requirements. There are dozens of requirements, though one of the most unusual is that dikes and berms will have to be built to protect against offshore dairy slicks. These plans must be in place by November, and the EPA will run a $3 million program to help farmers and ranchers comply.
Chris Hoffner, owner of the Hoffner Dairy Farm on Kerr Mill Road, hadn’t heard of the new regulations when asked about them last week. Hoffner said he wasn’t surprised by the new regulations, but doesn’t agree with them.
“They should be monitoring the quality of the foreign milk that is now being sold in the U.S. and stay out of our business,” Hoffner said.
The prices of milk, butter, cheese, yogurt and ice cream will go up in the stores, and more regulations will add drag to the already sluggish farm economy, say critics of the new regulations.
On Thursday, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona confronted EPA chief Lisa Jackson during a congressional hearing. Jackson says the EPA has no plans to regulate milk the same way it regulates oil. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska asked Jackson during a meeting with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to follow through on her statement and provide an exemption for dairy farmers from the proposed regulations.
In June 2010, the Senate Agricultural Committee passed a resolution urging the EPA to take back these regulations. For now, they still stand.
Robert Miller, who owns Miller Farm Dairy on Weaver Road with his brother Michael, said it looks to him “like the government wants all the farmers to go out of business.”
“With more regulation, who is going to keep farming?” Miller asked. “We have already been discouraged enough. But thankfully our grain and produce are selling well and for good prices. We are actually losing money running the dairy right now. We don’t want to get out of the dairy business, because it is extremely hard to start again should we want to.”
Still, Miller said his family “will just have to continue to diversify. We have already talked about taking land from our pasture and making it into crop land. We can make more money growing corn than feeding the cows.”
Miller — who with his brother was born in the dairy business, learning from their father, James — spent part of the day Saturday researching the new regulations. He found that his dairy would be affected and plans to explore his options.
Chris Hoffner is doing that, too.
Hoffner runs an organic dairy — one of only six in the state — making sure that no chemicals are used in feed production. Currently his farm is self-sufficient, growing everything that he needs for feed. He uses many new practices, such as baling wet hay and wrapping it in silage bags. The bags cause the hay to cure and can be fed as needed later.
But Hoffner also owns Hoffner Organic Farms which produces beef, hot dogs and pastrami on grain and grass feed. He said prices are good right now for corn, grain and even cotton.
“We could sell the products that we produce for feed, or grow other crops and make more money,” he said.
Hoffner Dairy has been in operation since 1956, and Hoffner hopes he has found the nitch that will keep his business profitable. His father, Alan, bought the operation from his dad and sold it to Chris Hoffner eight years ago. He worried about the effect of the new regulations on family farms like theirs.
“I think that the EPA is targeting the large farms and milk companies, but eventually more of the smaller farmers will be forced out,” Alan Hoffner said.
Chris Hoffner added that his family understands the need for regulation, “and we don’t want to go back to the way it was years ago. But what will they want to regulate next?”
Both dairies purposely keep their dairy herds under 100 cows to avoid even more regulations. Still they are visited and inspected by the N.C. Department of Water Quality and the U.S. National Resources Conservation Services. The Hoffners and the Millers say more regulation is not the answer. They hope public opinion will mandate a change of the EPA plans before compliance is required in November.