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Merced County community divided over farmer’s proposal to expand dairy

Dairy cows feed at Hillcrest Dairy in Merced County, Calif., on Thursday, March 17, 2022. ANDREW KUHN/akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

It’s a windy day in LeGrand as Eddie Hoekstra drives through rows of cattle on his farm. Hoekstra manages about 8,000 cows on his 2,290-acre farm called Hillcrest Dairy. He’s 53 years old and has managed the farm for over 20 years.

As he gets older, he says, he thinks a lot about how he wants to leave the farm to his sons. Two of them have degrees in agriculture and a third son works at the dairy as well.

“If they want to stay in the dairy business in California, we have to be competitive,” he said.

It’s one reason Hoekstra has submitted a proposal to the county to increase the number of cows on his farm by 1,700. That would bring the total herd to nearly 9,750. The proposal includes building roughly 195,000 square feet of new stalls. And at a time of record high inflation, he sees the expansion as key to the survival of his family business.

“It's one of those things where you constantly have to look at improving your bottom line,” he says.

Merced County is the second-largest dairy-producing county in the state. The county’s dairy industry produced more than a billion dollars in profits in 2020, representing about one-third of the county’s agricultural production, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

But just down the road from Hillcrest Dairy is the unincorporated community of Planada, population 4,000. The community is predominantly Latino and roughly 28% of the residents live below the poverty line. There, some residents are worried that any more cows will only diminish their quality of life.

Residents divided over dairy farm expansion

Rita Rodriguez is cutting the cilantro for her albondigas, or meatball soup, in her kitchen in Planada. She and her husband have lived in this home for nearly 30 years. Rodriguez, 67, says the worst part of living a mile down the road from the farm is the smell.

Especially in the summertime,” she says. “You're sitting outside enjoying a nice summer evening outside and then all of a sudden, it's like this pollution just comes into the air. We just can’t handle it.”

She says it doesn’t smell everyday, but it's frequent and can last for hours at a time.

Dairy cows are milked at Hillcrest Dairy in Merced County, Calif. on Thursday, March 17, 2022. ANDREW KUHN/akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Her husband David Rodriguez, 67, says living down the road from Hillcrest Farms has been frustrating. Especially when they try to raise concerns about the odor.

He feels, “anxiety, anger, because there are times you can't do anything about it, especially at the moment,” he says. “And then in the past, when we've gone and talked with the Board of Supervisors, it just goes in one ear and out the other.”

John Pedrozo is a former chairman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors. He represented the district that includes Planada. He also comes from a dairy farming family. He says he understands the residents' concerns, but occasional odors are just part of living in an agricultural community

“You're going to get a certain amount of stench for that for a little while because the sediment in the lagoon comes through with the water,” he says. “So it's going to smell somewhat, but it goes away.”

Pedrozo says Hoekstra’s contributions to the community far outweigh the inconvenience of the cow manure odor.

Alicia Rodriguez, 57, has lived in Planada for 37 years and volunteers at the elementary school. She agrees with Pedrozo.

“He gives for community day. He gives to the churches,” she says. “He gives to any program there is for kids and is constantly giving money to Planada.”

But community advocates say that’s not enough. Madeline Harris, with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, says the California Environmental Quality Act requires the county to look into a dairy’s impact on air and water quality. If there are significant environmental impacts, farmers are required to show mitigation efforts.

“At the end of the day, if the dairy is contributing to schools or other things in the community, if those things are not actually mitigating the environmental impacts that are being caused to the community, then the dairy expansion should not be allowable under CEQA,” she says.

Could a dairy digester help reduce odor?

Back at Hillcrest Dairy, Eddie Hoekstra says he tries to stay in compliance with the various regulations set forth by the state. And he tries to be a good neighbor.

I've said from the beginning when we moved here that I didn't want to be a nuisance to the community,” he says. “I wanted to be an asset.”

Vehicles drive past a sign identifying Hillcrest Dairy as a Hilmar Cheese Company supplier on Thursday, March 17, 2022. ANDREW KUHN/akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

He’s also considering installing a dairy digester which, among other things, could help reduce the smell from the dairy.

Right now, Hoekstra manages manure by dumping it into lagoons. The digester would seal methane formed in the lagoon with a large covering. The gas can then be converted into a form of biofuel that can be pumped into natural gas pipelines or used for vehicle fuel.

Hoekstra says he’s signed and submitted a letter of intent for a digester to the county.

“If we are in agreement, then the next step would be for [the company we partner with] to drop the plan and then they would submit that to the county,he says.

But Harris, with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, says dairy digesters don’t address all of the issues that communities near dairies experience.

“It wouldn't address the enteric emissions that come from cow burps, so it doesn't even address all of the methane emissions that dairies produce,” she says. “And it wouldn't address a lot of the other nuisances, like odor and flies that communities face if all of the manure isn't being covered.”

Officials are currently preparing the environmental impact report for the dairy expansion. The Merced County Planning Commission will decide on Hillcrest Dairy’s expansion proposal after that.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.