By Anne Stanton
A drive down a quiet paved road outside of Mesick reveals a contrast
in the old and the new: Old McDonalds versus Factory Farming.
At one end of West Four Road is farmer Mike Hampels place. About 50
cattle stand among neat rows of stumpy brown cornstalks. A few gaze
curiously as a lone car passes by. Inside a large shed are tools and
several vehicles in the midst of repair. Two white stray cats,
powdered with dust, are newcomers to the farm, sleeping away the day
in the back of an old car.
A half-mile down the road is whats called a confined animal feeding
operation (CAFO) with rows and rows of large black and white Holstein
heifers munching grain, their heads poking through black metal bars.
More cows are inside one of the propertys many barns, either eating
or lying down on the dirt floor. Despite the negative reputation of
CAFO, these animals have room to walk around in the barn and spend
Hampel said the strong manure smell emanating periodically from the
CAFO doesnt bother him. This is farm country, after all. The barns
dirt floors are kept clean of manure, in part, because much of it goes
through floor slats and into a pit where it liquefies into a slurry.
The manure is sprayed as fertilizer onto fallow fields where corn and
hay are planted for the cowsabout 120,000 pounds each day, an
estimate based on United States Department of Agriculture statistics.
The question is this: does the Mesick CAFO bode more for the same in this area?
The CAFO has actually been in Mesick for quite some time, with local
farmer Butch Broad gradually expanding his farm into an industrialized
operation. About three years ago, a downstate corporation bought the
farm. The new owner, Mike Geerlings, replaced the beef herd with about
1,000 black and white heifers (young females) that he raises for
transfer to his dairy CAFOs downstate.
The corporation is Scenic View Dairy Northern Beef and Grain, which
owns three downstate dairy CAFOs, cited multiple times by the Food and
Drug Administration for the illegal presence of antibiotics in dairy
cows that were slaughtered and intended for human consumption.
There are a total of 230 CAFOs in the State of Michigan and they tend
to cluster together. Theyve only edged into Northern Michigan with
six industrialized swine farms and a heifer CAFO near Ludington in
Mason County. In McBain, a small town west of Cadillac, there are five
dairy CAFOs; one with the name of Many Blessings Dairy. They were
drawn to the area with the promise of an ethanol plant in McBain,
which would have produced a plentiful and cheap corn byproduct for
cattle to eat. The plant never materialized, but the CAFOs did.
Mike Hampel doesnt know if more CAFOs will move into the Grand
Traverse region, but he does know that profit margins are thin and
driving small dairy farms out of business. He makes most of his money
on corn and hay, with his beef cattle serving as sort of maintenance
on his farm, with cows chewing down the grass and hay where needed. He
makes only about a 5% profit on his beef cattle because industrial
farming has driven down prices, he said.
The CAFO is a thing of the future, part of the evolution.
Unfortunately I dont know how you can feed the world any other way.
It cant be done the old way. All the billions of people in the world
get up every morning and eat breakfast, and then lunch and dinner. The
next day they get up and do it all over again. Everything is so huge,
and there are so many less farmers. Im not in love with seeing things
going this way, but I dont have another answer to it, said Hampel,
standing in his shop, while his four-year-old son played with boxes of
bolts and tools.
The local CAFO has had no problems or environmental violations, said
Garth Aslakson, environmental quality analyst for the Department of
Natural Resources and Environment.
But the corporation does have a troubling record. In a rare move, the
U.S. Department of Justice filed a request on August 31 of this year
for a permanent injunction against Scenic View, owner Mike Geerlings,
and three managers that oversee the dairy CAFOs in Fennville, Freeport
and Gowen, Michigan.
The request came after nine years of warnings. From 2001 to 2010, the
FDA contacted Scenic View Dairy eight times, while the USDA gave the
company 11 different written warnings. Yet the dairy continued to
medicate animals intended for slaughter at illegally high levels. The
company also used the antibiotic, neomycin, on lactating cows, which
violated the drugs FDA-approved labeling without a valid veterinary
prescription authorizing the extra-label use. Owner Mike Geerlings
didnt return phone calls for an interview.
Lynn Henning, an award-winning investigator who works for the Michigan
Sierra Club Chapter, drew attention to a diesel spill at a Scenic View
CAFO into an irrigation pond in 2009. The spill necessitated the
removal of 5,500 gallons of water film and 65 tons of spoiled material
from the pond, which the company promptly completed when requested.
Henning has also raised questions with the DNRE about a mushroom
factory that was sold to Scenic View and contains sodium chloride
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT AND DRINK
Antibiotics are routinely given to beef cattle, pigs and poultry to
fatten the animal quicker and to prevent disease that can knock down a
herd like dominoes.
All this matters because beef, swine and chicken dosed with
antibioticsneomycin, penicillin, and sufadimethoxine in the case of
Scenic Vieware consumed by humans. Antibiotics that dont remain in
the animal are excreted into the environment.
Each year, 25 million pounds or 70% of the total antibiotics and
related drugs produced in the United States are fed to cattle, pigs
and poultry, according to an article on the website of the Union of
The medication of these CAFO animals is a key suspect of resistant
bacteria or superbugs that cant be tamed with standard antibiotic
drugs. The most troublesome is MRSA, an extremely resistant staph
infection that can turn deadly.
Strains of this resistant bacteria can get carried from the CAFOs into
kitchens, according to the Union of Scientists article, Prescription
for Trouble: Using Antibiotics to Fatten Livestock.
Campylobacter, the number one cause of infectious diarrhea in the U.S,
is carried into kitchens on poultry and can make people sick when they
eat raw or undercooked chicken, the article said.
While this does not always cause severe illness, the CDC estimates
that there are two to four million Campylobacter infections per year,
resulting in as many as 250 deaths each year in the United States,
according to the article.
When it comes to dairy cows, the FDA disallows the sale of milk from
animals undergoing antibiotic treatment. But the CAFO practice of
giving low-level, continuous feedings of antibiotics, such as
penicillin and tetracycline to livestock and poultry for growth
promotion is not only legal, its also encouraged and defended by
government extension offices. Hormone growth implants are also legal.
These are synthetic estrogen compounds that cost only $1.50, but can
add up to 50 pounds to the weight of the steer, but are highly
controversial because they turn up in our meat and waterways,
according to a New York Times article by Michael Pollan.
The irony is that Hampelwho only uses antibiotics for sick animals
and never hormone growth implantssells 80% of his pasture-raised
cattle to Tyson Foods in Joslyn, Illinois, one of the nations
largest meat processors. Thats the same place that CAFO operations
ship cattle. Yet grocery shoppers have no way of distinguishing where
their meat comes from.
The practice of packing thousands of animals into small spaces has
Americans wondering about the safety of their food supply. In August
of this year, Wright County Egg and Hillendal Farms recalled a half
billion eggs because of salmonella contamination. (One could say that
chickens suffer most greatly under this system; one CAFO in Ionia,
Michigan, houses close to 60,000 chickens.)
Earlier this summer, stores were ordered to take a million pounds of
tainted hamburger off their shelves, along with 400,000 pounds of deli
meats contaminated by listeria, according to news reports.
Awareness is growing. Some fear the presence of antibiotics, growth
hormones and bacteria, while others simply feel sorry for the animals,
such as hens that live out their plump, short lives enclosed in a
one-cubic foot battery cage barely able to move among their cellmates.
Some farmers in Northern Michigan have realized they cant compete
with the CAFOs, in part, because they dont have the land to grow the
needed grain or to dispose of the massive amount of manure.
According to the USDA, the average dairy cow produces up to 148 lbs.
of manure a day, depending on its age and size. That manure has to go
somewhere, and often it gets spread on hay and corn fields as
fertilizera ratio of five to six cows for every acre.
Next week: CAFO farmers on why their cattle are healthier.