A brief video that tells the real story of nitrate, groundwater and dairies in the Yakima Valley.Yakima Valley has become ground zero for environmental accusations against family farmers, especially dairy farmers. Attorneys targeting dairy farms and anti-farm activists are vigorously attacking family farmers through lawsuits, political campaigns, and through on-going media outreach. The discredited “What’s Upstream” attack on farmers is one vivid example of this kind of activism. These farm opponents say they are operating out of concern for public health, clean water and the environment. They scheme to get the public, legislators and regulators to agree with their positions and remedies which, if adopted, would force many farmers out of business across the state.
One of their complaints is contaminated ground water. Nitrate in levels higher than the current EPA standard is found in about 12 percent of wells in the lower Yakima Valley. They say the lives and health of Yakima residents are being put at risk because of the dairy farms that have chosen to milk cows in the Yakima Valley over the past thirty years. Already, many millions of dollars have been spent because of these accusations. Some of it by local, state and federal government agencies monitoring, reporting and working to make changes. But much of it is being spent by dairy farmers to meet the demands of regulators and litigation. What is at stake is both the health and well-being of the citizens of this magnificent valley but also the economic interests of not just the farmers under attack, but the many who employees and farm-related businesses who depend on them for jobs and community involvement.
What is the truth about the Yakima Valley water quality?
Water quality in Yakima County has been an important public issue since at least 1910. The rapid population growth and lack of awareness of the dangers of proper sewage management, led to an epidemic of Typhoid Fever. Irrigation water for crops was contaminated by wells next to outhouses and by direct discharge of sewage into the Yakima River. In 1911 Yakima County became one of the very first counties in the nation to establish a Public Health Service. In this presentation we will first look at the issue of nitrate in ground water to see if the concerns about the valley’s dairy farms is appropriate. Next, we will look at the issue of the risks to public health from nitrate. Finally, we will look at what is being done to improve water quality.
Nitrate in ground water above the EPA standard is common throughout farm country
While most media coverage and environmental studies about nitrate in the Yakima Valley focus on dairy farms, the fact is nitrate above the current EPA standard is not unique to the Yakima Valley. Higher than allowed nitrate is common in almost all areas in Washington state where there has been farming activity and population growth over the past hundred years or more. On-site sewage systems (OSS), in addition to farming, is a major cause of nitrate in groundwater. The degree of nitrate coming from farm activities is dependent on the type of crop grown, the type of soil and the amount of water from rain or irrigation.
According to the USGS (https://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/nutrients/pubs/wcp_v39_no12/) there are many areas across the nation with risk of ground water contamination from nitrate. These correspond to high inputs of nitrogen from farming activities and to the vulnerability of the aquifer.
Some aquifers are more susceptible to contamination than others due to a number of factors. These include the depth of the ground water, the types of soil and the amount of rainfall. The likelihood of a well being above the current EPA standard for nitrate is based largely on how deep the well is. It makes sense. Well water closer to the surface is more likely to include nitrate than the deeper wells. Overall, in agricultural areas considered high risk, the average number of wells above the current standard is 24%.
The Department of Ecology reported in 2010 that in the lower Yakima Valley, the number of domestic well users with water above the EPA standard is at 12%, or about half the average in vulnerable areas. In Whatcom County by contrast, at one point or another between the 1980 to the mid-2000s, as many as 29% of the wells in the farming area were above the limit. The differences have to do largely with rainfall and the depth of the wells.
Eastern Washington overall reflects the nitrate concentrations of ground water across the nation. A 1998 USGS survey of 574 wells in 17 areas throughout the Columbia Basin Ground Water Management Area showed an average of about 30% of samples exceeded the federal standard for nitrate.What is nitrate and where does it come from?
Nitrate is a form of nitrogen, an essential element of life and one of the most common substances in the universe. Life is not possible without nitrogen and plants need it to grow. While nitrogen occurs naturally in soil, it is applied by farmers in the form of fertilizer to grow their crops. Both commercial fertilizer and organic fertilizer – manure – is used by farmers. Nitrogen that converts to nitrate and affects ground water also comes from other sources as the USGS website states:
Nitrate comes from nitrogen, a plant nutrient supplied by inorganic fertilizer and animal manure. Additionally, airborne nitrogen compounds given off by industry and automobiles are deposited on the land in precipitation and dry particles. Other nonagricultural sources of nitrate include lawn fertilizers, on-site sewage systems, and domestic animals in residential areas.
Nitrate above background levels in Eastern Washington comes primarily from farming. This region is one of the most productive farming regions in the nation, producing diverse crops such as apples, wheat, milk products, grapes, hops, stone fruit, potatoes and cattle. The Grand Coulee dam, completed in 1942, and other dams delivered irrigation water that allowed the land to produce in abundance. Commercial fertilizer along with abundant water allowed farmers to fertilize their crops and irrigate heavily – activities now recognized as causing the excess nitrogen to enter ground water in the form of nitrate. Nitrate resides in soil for many years and accumulates over time as more is added.
The map shows nitrate concentrations in Franklin County. There are virtually no dairy farms in this area. Other areas of the Columbia Basin show similar levels of nitrate in ground water without any concentration of dairy or livestock farms. Despite the accusations of activists targeting dairy farms, the focus on dairies as the sole, primary or even major contributor of nitrate in ground water is simply not supported by the facts.
Some could suggest that the nitrate levels documented by the Department of Ecology in their 2010 report demonstrates a connection between dairy farms in the lower Yakima Valley and increasing nitrate levels. The report was generated as a result of a series of Yakima Herald media reports on water quality in the Yakima Valley focusing on dairy farms. In many respects, the report inordinately focuses on dairy farms rather than a more balanced look at the numerous potential sources of nitrate in ground water. The shifting in values between the previous test for nitrates and more recent tests demonstrates that the purpose of this study may have gone beyond best possible science, as the scale for monitoring locations with high nitrate counts changed. As it is, the results raise the question as to what caused the high nitrate levels in the Yakama Reservation in the previous testing without major dairy operations. These nitrate levels were considerably higher than the current reading as the largest yellow circles represent amounts of 21 to 30 ppm while the largest green circles – the more recent tests – show amounts 10 to 21 parts per million of nitrate.
What is clear is that nitrate comes from many sources including dairy farm operations. Most of the nitrate concentrations above the EPA limits in Eastern Washington reflect previous farming practices with liberal applications of both nitrogen and water. Like other farmers, dairy farmers have become increasingly aware of the problems associated with applying too much nitrogen or applying it in conjunction with heavy rain or irrigation. Farming continues to evolve as farmers find new ways to minimize any negative impact on water and the environment.
Despite the accusations of activists targeting dairy farms, the focus on dairies as the sole, primary or even major contributor of nitrate in ground water is simply not supported by the facts.
Dairy farms and nitrate levels
Dairy farming is an important business in Washington state providing $1.2 billion in farm sales and economic impact estimated at over $5 billion. For most, it is also important that these farms provide high quality dairy products serving local and global customers. Add to this, the year round employment of many dairy workers directly on the farm but also in businesses that support farmers. However, environmental concerns outweigh economic or local food production issues for many in our state, so the important question remains:
Are these farms harmful to the environment, our communities that rely on them, and our state?
Most dairy arms are located in Whatcom and Yakima Counties. Because of land availability, proximity to urban areas, available feed and other reasons, dairy farms in Eastern Washington are typically larger than those in Western Washington. Almost all farms are family-owned and operated. In Washington state over 95% of all farms are family farms.
While Western Washington farms can often be dated back to the early 1900s or even before, many dairy farms in Yakima Valley are more recent. For example, between 1997 and 2002 the number of dairy cows in Eastern Washington grew by 30% compared to the decline in the numbers in Whatcom County. Today, the average dairy farm in Eastern Washington has about 1500 cows while in Western Washington the average is about 450 cows. There are about 65 dairy farms in Yakima County making it one of the most productive dairy areas in the nation.
Dairy farmers typically purchased and used land that grew crops such as potatoes and sugar beets. They use that land to grow feed crops for their dairy cows using the manure the cows produce as organic fertilizer to produce the valuable feed. Commercial fertilizer used for the previous crops along with heavy irrigation left a legacy of nitrate in the soil. Today, regulations on dairy farming called the Dairy Nutrient Management Act of 1998 require dairy farmers to apply their manure to the fields at the right time, in the right amounts and in the right places. This is to avoid excess nitrogen in the soil beyond what the growing plants can take up as well as prevent runoff into streams and ditches.
Nitrate in ground water can come from dairy farms in two ways: one is through field application of fertilizer. The second is through manure lagoons. Lagoons are large storage ponds used to store the manure until it can be applied properly. Manure is applied when the crops are growing and can take up the nitrogen and when weather conditions limit risk of runoff into streams. Dairy farm critics like to cite the number of cows in an area or the state and the amount of manure they produce. We have seven million people in this state and they produce a lot of waste as well. But we have laws, regulations and extensive waste management systems to help ensure that public health and the environment is protected from that waste. The same is true of cow manure, which is actually an increasingly valuable by-product of dairy farms in the form of organic fertilizer and compost. Current dairy nutrient management laws specify zero discharge of manure to water and strictly control the application of manure to minimize contamination. Do these systems prevent all accidents, spills or careless operations? No, but neither do our human sewage systems as was dramatically illustrated in February 2017 as a failure at a sewage treatment plant in Seattle resulted in about 200 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into Puget Sound. The Seattle Times noted the silence of environmental activists on the Seattle sewage spill, but when a broken pipe caused a 1.3 million gallon spill of mixed wastewater and manure to flow into the Yakima River, news coverage used the event to highlight attacks against farmers.
Much attention is being paid by dairy farmers to nutrient management. Yakima farmers have worked hard to improve their performance and it is showing in the latest report from the Washington State Department of Agriculture which manages and enforces the Dairy Nutrient Management Act of 1998. The 2016 report shows that nearly 97% of the 56,000 acres in dairy cropland in Yakima County is in compliance with nutrient application requirements which specify the amount of nitrate in the soil. The 3.4% of cropland not in compliance compares to the nearly 12% that was not in compliance just two years earlier.
The risk of nitrate contamination in groundwater is much greater from application of manure to crops than it is from manure lagoons which is why so much attention and work is focused on nutrient management. However, farm critics focus most of their attention on manure lagoons. They falsely claim these lagoons are unlined, and that large amounts of manure leak and foul the groundwater. Attorneys and anti-farm activists are striving to require the use of synthetic liners through court order, coercive agreements, regulations or law.
Scientists in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the US Department of Agriculture are the top federal experts in farming and the environment. They have consistently opposed the use of synthetic liners because the data they have accumulated shows that the soil and cured manure liners of current NRCS standards are protective of water. Washington State Departments of Ecology and Agriculture and the Conservation Districts all support the NRCS standards for liners. The amount of leakage or seepage from these liners is very, very small. Typically it is less than the thickness of a single sheet of computer paper from a full one acre lagoon per day, and often much less than this. But even the very small amount that seeps has been proven not to be harmful to water in most situations because of the process of denitrification. This is a biological process that takes place in the vadose zone – the top layer of soil beneath the lagoon and the level of the groundwater. A UC Davis report from California showed that lagoons contribute less than a quarter of one per cent [0.2] of all nitrate in groundwater.
Soil tests beneath a decommissioned dairy lagoon in the Yakima Valley demonstrate what scientists have shown in numerous studies. Depending on water depth and soil conditions, a biological process called denitrification occurs below the lagoon so that very little, if any nitrate, enters groundwater from the small amount that leaks from a properly sealed lagoon.
Soil testing below decommissioned lagoons have also proven this to be the case. One Eastern Washington lagoon was tested to 43 feet below the bottom of the lagoon. While nitrate above the EPA standard was found in the first two feet below the bottom of the lagoon liner, it disappeared to background levels below two feet. At 16 feet there was a bump in nitrate level which is attributed to transport of historic nitrate from field applications years earlier. This demonstrates not only the protective nature of existing lagoon designs, but provides graphic illustration of the issue of the longevity of nitrate and its transport through the aquifer.
It would be wrong to say that dairy farms don’t contribute to nitrate in groundwater. But it is even more wrong to say that dairy farmers are the sole or primary cause of this nitrate issue. Experience in other areas including in the Yakima Valley shows that as farmers become more aware of the issues they respond with changes in how they farm. Not all farmers operate with the same level of responsibility and stewardship. Which is why the dairy industry has supported regulations and funding for inspectors to ensure compliance of all farmers. Dairy farmers in Yakima Valley, as another areas of the state are for the most part, responding positively and constructively and working toward continual environmental improvement.
Driving dairy farmers out of the Valley will not solve the nitrate problem as can be vividly seen in nitrate levels across Eastern Washington. As farming continues to evolve and change with increased understanding of the impacts of nitrogen and irrigation, we can expect to see improvements in nitrate levels in groundwater.
USGS data shows farm areas across nation with high risk of ground water contamination from nitrate.Lower Yakima Valley’s 12% of domestic well users with water above the EPA standard is about half the percentage of wells in agricultural areas across the nation and Eastern Washington. This is likely due to less sandy soils found in the Yakima Valley, the lack of monoculture crops being grown and lower amount of precipitation that drives nitrate into the groundEastern Washington farming areas show high levels of nitrate with no dairy farms nearby. Experts agree that nitrate in groundwater is primarily from past farming practices that included heavy commercial fertilization combined with intensive irrigation. Farming practices have changed significantly in response, but historic nitrate levels remain for a long period of time.Nitrate levels in the Yakima Valley, with red areas showing urban areas. The visual information is distorted by a change in scale from the previous readings (yellow) to more current readings.
What about the EPA agreement and lawsuit against Yakima dairies?
Anti-farm activists frequently refer to the 2013 Consent Order that four Yakima dairy farms signed with the EPA and the successful lawsuit against these dairies that followed that Consent Order. A few important facts:
The EPA violated agency and federal policy in developing the “science” used to document the farms’ contributions to water contamination. For example, they insisted on testing only soil where manure had recently been applied then tested the soil to 1 inch rather than to depths required for accurate nitrate testing. It was clear by the process, incrimination and not the truth was the goal.
The so-called “science” report was roundly criticized by almost every qualified scientist and government agency who reviewed it. NRCS reviewers stated bluntly the report was not accurate, assumptions were invalid and the entire report needed to be retracted. A well recognized expert from WSU stated the report “does not accomplish its goal” of providing information on the contributions from targeted sources.
The EPA refused to allow the numerous critiques of its study to be made public, publishing only its failed report. The new administration has now made the strong critique of this science public.
The EPA Region 10 Administrator then used this false report to coerce the farmers into a settlement with threats of litigation in the 9th Circuit Court and with promises to defend the farmers against possible third party lawsuits. When third party lawsuits emerged, the Administrator refused to keep his commitment to defend the farmers.
This is the same EPA Administration that is under investigation by the Office of Inspector General for violation of federal laws for supporting the anti-farm political campaign called “What’s Upstream.” Campaign sponsors were authorized by the Administrator to use up to $655,000 of tax payer money to run a campaign aimed at building outrage against farmers with false accusations and passing legislation mandating large stream buffers on farm land.
In the subsequent lawsuit, a skillful attorney who claimed in court that “these farmers are killing America” convinced a federal judge that he should be the first to decide that manure – valuable organic fertilizer – should fall under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a law clearly intended to regulate municipal waste and not manure. This unfortunate decision cost the Yakima farmers millions of dollars and prompted legislation in the US Congress to clarify the clear intent of the RCRA law and prevent these kinds of harmful lawsuits.
These same lawyers from Oregon vigorously opposed an Ecology discharge permit for farmers that would provide the same level of protection against lawsuits as afforded every other discharge permit holder. Their motivation is clearly to protect their ability to sue dairy farmers and rid the nation of these “killers” while posing as environmental activists.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture enforces the state’s strict Dairy Nutrient Management Act which specifies the safe and proper application of nutrients as well and the prohibition against any manure entering waterways. The 2016 report shows strong progress in Eastern Washington dairy farms in compliance with nutrient application considered safe. almost 97% of dairy cropland is compliance with state guidelines for safe application compared to 88% just two years ago.
This University of Nebraska report is one of many scientific reports which demonstrate that nitrate does not present a risk to health as claimed by anti-farm activists. The current EPA limit on nitrate in groundwater is based on what most consider a flawed 1940s report that erroneously linked blue baby syndrome to high levels of nitrate in well water.An EPA scientist in a 2013 presentation made clear the presumed link between blue baby syndrome and nitrate in groundwater was false. The presentation also showed that other potential health risks such as stomach cancers were not supported by scientific studies
Leafy vegetables are high in nitrate which has been proven to reduce hypertension and improve heart health. Many athletes drink beet juice before an event because the high nitrates boost cardio performance. These vegetables contain 2500 times more nitrate than the EPA allows in drinking water. We have a situation where one federal agency is promoting as healthy a substance that another federal agency is stating is a health riskThis is currently published on the discredited anti-farm activist campaign called “What’s Upstream.” Even though the EPA repeatedly called on the sponsors to correct the false information and false accusations, the sponsors insisted. Sadly, despite this the EPA continued to fund the malicious, false attack on farmers aimed at passing new legislation.
Anti-farm activists use non-science based scare tactics to mislead the public and create unwarranted concern. There have even been suggestions made publicly that dairy farmers are “killing America.”The Centers for Disease Control and the Washington State Department of Health conducted a study of the cluster of cases of anencephaly in Eastern Washington. Activists pointed at nitrate and the unfounded accusation was reported in the media. However, the study showed no link, rather a lack of folic acid in the diets of expectant mothers. Despite this, Yakima area activists continue to repeat the claim.
Nitrate and Human Health
Nitrate in groundwater is a major problem throughout most of the nation. It is costing taxpayers and some individuals many millions of dollars. In Minnesota, numerous communities have installed nitrate treatment systems at a cost of $3300 per household. In 1989 the City of DesMoines, Iowa installed a nitrate treatment facility at a cost of $4.1 million. In Yakima, four large dairy farmers have paid in excess of $7 million to deal with issues related to nitrate – issues that they were likely not responsible for. This includes the costs of providing bottled water to the Yakima Valley residents who drink well water with nitrate above the EPA standard.
What is the public health risk of nitrate in drinking water?
The primary focus is on a disease called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome.” This is a very serious and potentially fatal condition that prevents newborns from getting enough oxygen – hence the “blue baby.” The problem is that the EPA set the level of 10 mg/L or 10 parts per million in drinking water based on a 1940s study linking cases of blue baby syndrome to high nitrate in drinking water. That study has now been shown to be faulty because it dismissed the presence of fecal coliform bacteria in the drinking water. Since then, there have been numerous studies completed and results published on websites such as the National Institutes of Health which demonstrate that the link between this disease and the current nitrate level set by the EPA is not supportable. For example, a report by a large group of scientists published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln details the various health risks associated with nitrate and provides this analysis related to methemoglobinemia:
The link between nitrate and the occurrence of methaemoglobinaemia was based on studies conducted in the 1940s in the midwest of the USA. In part, these studies related the incidence of methaemoglobinaemia in babies to nitrate concentrations in rural well water used for making up formula milk replacement. Comly (1945), who first investigated what he called “well-water methaemoglobinaemia,” found that the wells that provided water for bottle feeding infants contained bacteria as well as nitrate. He also noted that “In every one of the instances in which cyanosis (the clinical symptom of methaemoglobinaemia) developed in infants, the wells were situated near barnyards and pit privies.” There was an absence of methaemoglobinaemia when formula milk replacements were made with tap water. Re-evaluation of these original studies indicate that cases of methaemoglobinaemia always occurred when wells were contaminated with human or animal excrement and that the well water contained appreciable numbers of bacteria and high concentrations of nitrate (Avery, 1999). This strongly suggests that methaemoglobinaemia, induced by well water, resulted from the presence of bacteria in the water rather than nitrate per se. A recent interpretation of these early studies is that gastroenteritis resulting from bacteria in the well water stimulated nitric oxide production in the gut and that this reacted with oxyhaemoglobin in blood, converting it into methaemoglobin (Addiscott, 2005).
In 2013, an EPA scientist, Dr. Bruce Macler, presented the results of extensive study of occurrences of this syndrome in California. 42 cases were studied over 13 years. None of those were associated with nitrate and only four were located in areas where wells are used. He also reports that this lack of connection is found throughout the US.
How can something bad for you be good for you?
Nitrate in vegetables is very good for you. At least that is what most nutritionists say. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is promoted not just by nutritionists, but by federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health. One major reason is that the vegetables in this diet are high in nitrate. Spinach, beets, celery and the like are high in nitrate because they take up the nitrogen from the soil and fertilizer. The nitrate improves heart health. In fact, athletes consume vegetables or beet juice high in nitrate before an event to improve cardiac performance.
While one federal agency, the EPA says nitrate even in small amounts in drinking water is a risk to public health and requires millions to billions in removal, other federal agencies encourage nitrate consumption. Perhaps there will be a study that shows those people drinking from wells high in nitrate have improved heart health.
The current focus of study of blue baby syndrome is on genetics and bacteria. However, if an infant is fed formula from a well with high nitrate – usually much higher than the current standard – the small weight of the infant plus the concentration of its diet means it would be taking in far, far more nitrate than an older child or adult where foods high in nitrate only a portion of the diet. It would be wrong to feed an infant a diet very high in nitrate such as rich vegetables. But, this does not make vegetables toxic or even unhealthy. There seems good reason for caution in providing new born infants well water with very high levels of nitrate and especially if the well is tested positive for bacteria.
The concern we raise is how anti-farm activists attempt to use the issue of public health to scare the public, create unjustified concerns and get ill-informed judges to make harsh decisions not supported by the best available science. For example, the discredited anti-farm campaign funded by the EPA called “What’s Upstream” includes this frightening assessment:
“Manure contains nitrates, which are acute contaminants that produce immediate (within hours or days) health effects upon exposure. High doses particular threaten pregnant mothers with miscarriages, while babies can get methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome” which can be fatal.”
Any review of the relevant literature will demonstrate very quickly that this statement goes far beyond hyperbole into fear-mongering dishonesty. Numerous studies have been made of other health concerns including miscarriages, stomach cancer, and even anencephaly. As Dr. Macler from the EPA concluded: “No smoking gun.” Despite national and state news coverage of the suspected link between anencephaly and nitrate in drinking water, the State Department of Health in conjuction with the Center for Disease Control concluded there was no such link. That did not and sadly does not prevent anti-farm activists, such as the leaders of Friends of Toppenish Creek, from continuing to claim nitrate as the cause. (This group is a non-Indian organization located on the Yakama Reservation with no support from the Tribe.)
All government websites continue to publish the link between nitrate and blue baby syndrome as the reason for the current EPA standard. As long as the EPA continues to hold this increasingly questioned limit, they will likely repeat the 1940s conclusion without indicating there are serious scientific reservations about the study.
We support the position of the scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who conclude that given the vital role of nitrogen in feeding the nearly 7 billion people on earth and the economic costs of removing a substance that may be helpful rather than harmful, it is wise for the federal government to study this issue in depth. They do not recommend – and farmers are not supportive of – changing the level without further study. But everyone needs to be aware that the scare tactics used by anti-farm activists simply cannot be supported by current science.
As long as the federal standard remains as it is, farmers in the Yakima Valley and beyond will continue to make strong progress in protecting water from nitrate.
Moving forward with nutrient management
Growing food has left an imprint on the environment. It was only the past thirty or more years when the public and leaders came to realize that this impact was not sustainable. Farmers have learned and changed as much or more than just about any industry or group. A younger generation of farmers in particular approach farming with a sensitivity to environmental issues and a commitment to be the best possible stewards of air, land and water.
The Valley grew beets, potatoes, asparagus and mint in abundance for many years and more and more fertilizer was applied without understanding the problem of nitrate. When plants didn’t respond to fertilizer, farmers used more without understanding that trace elements and micro-nutrients play a key role in plant growth. Rill or farrow irrigation along with deep plowing pushed large amounts of nitrogen below the root zone. But farmers learned about and used micro-nutrients, low till and no till plowing, and new, more efficient irrigation methods and equipment. These changes have made a major difference in adding excess nutrients. Measurable results are slow in coming because of the years nitrate remains in the soil and water, but the results are showing in improved nitrate numbers in farm areas in our state as farmers change and as contamination from On-Site Sewage (OSS) systems is addressed.
Our state has an estimated 10,000 abandoned wells. These can provide a direct conduit of nutrients to the groundwater – another issue farmers are becoming more aware of and working to address.
While some find technological and productivity advances in agriculture to be negative, if we are to feed a growing population and do so in an environmentally sustainable way, increasing knowledge and technology have to be part of solution.
Dairy farmers have proven to be exceptionally productive. For example, a dairy farmer in 1960 was paid $4.23 per hundredweight of milk produced. In 2016, a dairy farmer on average was paid $16.20 per hundredweight. Factor in inflation, and today’s dairy farmer is paid less than half of what they were paid fifty seven years ago! In 1960 dollars, that $16.24 equates to $1.97 per hundredweight. While a farmer is paid much less for what is being produced, the costs have skyrocketed. The only reason farmers can still farm is because of great increases in productivity.
Today’s food consumer appears less impressed with the fact that food’s percentage of the family budget has been cut in half compared to fifty years ago. How that food is grown and its impact on the environment is now a major, if not primary concern. The focus today in dairy farming is largely about nutrient management. This is driven by regulations, of course, but regulations in turn are driven by elected leaders’ perspective on these issues and the concerns their constituents bring to them. The good news is, new information and technologies are very promising.
Field application of manure is a primary concern and this is being helped by improved soil testing, new integrated management techniques such as Application Risk Management, precision application methods such as injection, and significant improvements in precise and efficient irrigation. Getting the right amount of nutrients in the right places, at the right time is the key and many new technologies are helping that. In future more application is going to be driven by very precise observation combined with computer controlled application.
For manure storage and handling, a number of techniques and systems are being used with more on the way. A recently released a technology catalog featuring entries from 164 different vendors focused on nutrient management is one example of the rapid changes ahead. Anaerobic digesters are found in many dairy farming areas, including the Yakima Valley. These convert manure – and pre-consumer food waste in some cases – into electricity, a fiber product and water that is virtually 100% free of pathogens. The water is applied to fields because it retains its nitrogen content but without fecal coliform that can contaminate surface water. The fiber is often used for bedding for the cows and because it is free of pathogens it contributes to animal health. A new kind of manure treatment was recently announced that would convert manure into fertilizer and clean water. The technology was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a video of Bill Gates drinking water that five minutes earlier had been human waste went viral on YouTube. These technologies are very effective but cannot be widely implemented without subsidies due to their high cost and lack of financial return.
Many Yakima dairy farmers use manure filtration systems to remove solids from liquids and much of the solid material is converted into valuable certified organic compost. This product is being used on a growing number of organically grown crops in Washington State including increasingly on nearby hop farms. This reduces the need for chemical fertilizer, helps hop farmers better use their own waste and provides a reliable source of organic fertilizer – a bonus for today’s beer drinkers. Forcing dairy farmers out will have a serious impact on the availability in our state of organic nutrients.
Progress is being made at an accelerating pace. Department of Ecology information shows that in one major farm community in our state nitrate levels in many of its wells in were reduced. Given the time it takes for reductions to appear from the implementation of improved nutrient management methods, it is likely that many farming areas in our state and nation will begin to see improvements in water quality including nitrate levels.Bio-gas digesters, such as this one at the George DeRuyter Farm in the Yakima Valley, are one of many ways today’s dairy farmers invest and innovate to improve farming methods and protect the environment. These convert cow manure into electricity, pathogen-free cow bedding and nutrients that are free of bacteria that can contaminate water. Some process pre-consumer food waste as well.
THEN YOU’LL LOVE HOW YOUR HOPS ARE GROWN SUSTAINABLY USING ORGANIC FERTILIZER
Carpenter Ranches are one of many hop growers in the Yakima Valley. The sixth generation of family farmers is committed to sustainability.
The Carpenters follow a thorough sustainability program to ensure their farm is caring for the land, and this composting practice plays the biggest role in their program.
“We’re married to it (the land),” said Tyler Carpenter. “The better you treat it, the better it treats you.” He explains how the farm using dairy compost from nearby dairy farms to grow their fifteen varieties of hops.
“The dairy compost is in line with our sustainability program. It’s natural, and helps with soil structure which benefits with water drainage and nutrient mobility in the soil. It also increases our organic matter which is huge because usually with perennials, you lose a lot.”
Russ Davis of Organix was instrumental in helping Carpenter Ranches make use of dairy compost by combining it with hop waste. Davis says this working relationship between industries benefits everyone involved, even the craft breweries buying the hops.
“It’s a known fact that using organic compost long-term is better than using conventional fertilizer for reasons such as, runoff, leaching, soil health, plant growth – it’s just better for everyone,” said Davis. “I think even those on the buying end of beer would be happy to known the hops were grown with organic compost.”
“To be able to have a program like this, using natural, organic by-product with our neighbors-it’s a perfect combination,” Carpenter concluded.
To learn more about Carpenter Ranches, visit https://ychhops.com/who-we-are/growers/carpenter-ranches.
(story courtesy Dairyland News, Dairy Farmers of Washington)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