A dairy's growing pains

Expansion: A Kent County organic farm trying to double production faces opposition from environmentalists.

April 22, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

KENNEDYVILLE -- Four grainy images flicker on the television screen in Keith Boone's office, monitoring every facet of streamlined efficiency that Horizon Organic Dairy has brought to the 133-acre Kent County farm the Colorado-based corporation bought three years ago.

A glance at the video system allows the 41-year-old dairyman to calculate how much feed 520 or so cows are consuming or how quickly things are going in the milking parlor where workers milk 40 cows at a time, three times a day.

The milk comes from cows untreated with growth hormones or antibiotics and given organic feed. It's pumped into 6,000-gallon refrigerated tanks before being trucked to a New York processing plant for shipment to grocery stores throughout the East Coast.

With demand for organic products growing every year at a 20 percent clip, Horizon, the country's largest organic milk producer, wants to double production at its farm just north of Chestertown.

But environmentalists say the bucolic image of black-and-white Jersey cows contentedly munching grass on rolling hillsides is not the full story of a dairy that produces 4,500 gallons of milk a day.

Opponents contend that the expansion-minded company -- which recently leased the former Naval Academy dairy in Gambrills -- is too much like any factory farm where animals are contained mostly indoors for greater production.

"We're supportive of organic farming, but people think organic and see cows in the pasture in the sunshine," says Jan Graham, a local environmental activist and a member of the Sierra Club, which began a series of radio ads this week decrying the growth of large-scale corporate farms.

She points to Horizon as an example: "Part of my problem is that when people buy organic milk, they don't think of a factory farm."

Chris Bedford, chairman of the water, food and farm campaign of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, echoes that sentiment. "We support the organic concept," he says. "We don't support an animal factory like [Horizon]."

Proud of its efficiency and its environmental image, the 8-year-old company, which markets more than 100 dairy products, had sales last year approaching $85 million. The company's products can be found in more than 10,000 mainstream supermarkets and in natural food stores.

In recent years, Horizon has expanded into England and Japan.

Organic milk leader

More than three-quarters of the organic milk sold in the United States is produced by Horizon. The organic industry accounts for less than 2 percent of dairy products, but industry analysts say an eventual 30-percent share is not unrealistic.

To keep pace, especially in the fast-growing mid-Atlantic, Horizon wants to add 500 cows to the farm in Kennedyville.

"I'm not real sure what a factory farm is," Boone says. "Yeah, this farm is owned by a corporation, but it provides a living for 15 families of the people who work here. Any family dairy with more than 60 or 70 cows is going to have to hire outside labor. We're not much different."

Horizon gets high marks from local officials for rehabilitating the Kennedyville farm, which they say was poorly run by a previous corporate owner.

But some question the company's ability to manage animal waste and wastewater that is now contained in manure composting areas and lagoons that cover 4 acres. Five hundred cows produce about 5,000 tons of composted manure a year and 12 million to 14 million gallons of wastewater. Adding another 400 to 500 animals will require Horizon to dig more lagoons.

Wastewater would continue to be used to irrigate the Kennedyville farm, and four to seven truckloads a day would be sent to a nearby farm the company owns. Composted manure would be trucked across the Bay Bridge to the Naval Academy farm in Anne Arundel County.

Among the concerns expressed at a public hearing conducted this winter by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which will decide whether Horizon's expansion would pose an environmental threat, is that a large stream, Morgan Creek, runs through the property and empties into the Chester River.

`No guarantee'

"Like any business that has some environmental impact, everything depends on management," says John Hall, Kent County's agricultural extension agent. "Right now, that's based on Keith Boone and the job he's done. There's no guarantee that will be the same in the future."

Boone agrees that waste management is the company's biggest challenge. Last fall, Hurricane Floyd dumped 14 inches of rain in Kent County, forcing Boone to divert wastewater from lagoons to an area that had been used to exercise cows.

Later, the corralled area was planted with rye.

"I'm really proud of the way we handled that problem," Boone says, given that nearby water treatment plants were flooded. "As far as environmental planning, we're at the forefront of the industry," he says.

Some opponents, complaining that Horizon doesn't own enough land to spread the animal waste, have urged the company to contract with local farmers and buy milk from them, rather than concentrating so many animals at its own farm.

Boone says the company has contracts with more than 200 independent dairy farmers nationwide, many of them in Pennsylvania and New York. Currently, there are no contracts with Eastern Shore farmers, but Boone says he hopes this will change.

One problem is that cows must be raised drug-free and fed organic feed for three years before milk can be certified as organic.

"We'd like very much to attract local farmers but, frankly, we just haven't seen much interest from farmers," Boone says. "We have contracts now with several grain growers who are producing organic feed for us."

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