Helen Reddout peered out into the moonlight and down at her tidy rows of peppers and eggplants planted next to carrots, sweet corn, Brandywine tomatoes, and green patches of herbs. She gazed over the Yakima Valley, an irrigated patchwork of farms, orchards, vineyards, and dairies laid out across the scrubby high desert of south-central Washington. On this low escarpment, the Reddouts had planted their seventy-five acres of cherry, pear, apple, and nectarine orchards.
Helen thought back on the years she had spent so happily in this small patch of paradise. But then the big dairies had moved in.
Many in the valley had watched with heavy hearts as family dairies with seventy-five or so cows went out of business, replaced by enormous, corporate-backed behemoths that could milk and feed five thousand or more cows within a single confinement. Over time, many more of these “milk factories” began appearing in the dry, wide-open valley.
There was no mistaking these newcomers. Old-fashioned dairies had pastured their cows on emerald fields of green, periodically moving the animals through well-timed rotations of meadows brimming with wild clover, alfalfa, downy ryegrass, and other ingredients of a natural bovine buffet.
But the cows at the new milk factories were nothing like that. Instead, thousands of manure-smeared animals were jammed onto strictly confined tracts of land. Whatever grass had sprouted in these “feeding pens” was quickly shredded under constant hoof pounding, leaving behind open stretches of dirt, urine, and feces.
During the arid summers, dry lots baked and crumbled under the blazing sun. Cows and heifers kicked up clouds of dust laden with ground-up feces and pathogens. Sometimes on windy days, the disgusting brown clouds grew so thick that drivers flipped on their headlights at noon. The winter was even worse. Rain and melting snow mixed with the crap-filled soil and left a thick coating of muck caked onto the cows’ legs, bellies, and udders. Helen watched these creatures, penned in the thousands, and felt they were the very picture of animal misery.
Without access to a single blade of grass, these “new” dairy cows depended entirely on trucks that delivered silage, a mixture of milled grains, ground soybeans, and fermented cornstalk. Helen knew from her family’s dairy days that grain was no substitute for grass, which ruminants can digest and transform into protein.
Then there were the pools of stinking crap. Each dairy cow produces 120 pounds of wet manure a day—the equivalent of what twenty to forty people would generate. In a pasture-fed system, a farmer budgets up to 1.5 acres per cow. The land acts as a free-range toilet that can absorb the excrement. A confinement dairy does not have that option.
So what was becoming of all that crap? Dry-lot waste was left to cake in the sun and periodically scooped away with front loaders. Waste from the barns and milking parlors was flushed into lagoons. Before planting and after the fall harvest, farmers sprayed the liquefied waste onto their fields, spewing gases, pathogens, and particles into the semidesert air. The odor had been horrendous around the valley, though thankfully it had not reached the Reddout household—until now.
Tonight, sitting at the window, her eyes running, sick to her stomach, Helen Reddout made a silent vow to fight back.
From Animal Factory by David Kirby. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press LLC.
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