John Kinsman

What is the latest taxpayer-subsidized economic stimulus scheme?

Why, manure digesters on factory farms, of course!

At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled plans to promote manure digesters as a way to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent. The trick is that you have to be a factory farm to qualify.

In his State of the State address in January, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced his latest round of tax credits for factory farm expansion, including a whopping $6.6 million for two manure digesters in Dane County catering to just a handful of mega-dairies. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk has also been pushing for $1 million in her budget for these digesters.

The real tragedy is that manure digesters actually make global warming worse while “solving” a manure problem that would not even exist if cows were allowed to graze on pasture rather than being confined indoors. As Paris Reidhead documents in the January 2010 issue of the Milkweed, methane is 21 times as bad as carbon dioxide when it comes to causing global warming, and this methane threat largely stems from factory farms that store liquid manure in lagoons under anaerobic conditions. In contrast, utilizing manure as compost under aerobic conditions reduces the “carbon footprint” of dairy cows by over 90 percent.

From Jan. 11 to 24 I was in Germany to speak on the dairy crisis in the U.S. as part of the International Dairy and Eco Fair Trade Conference in Berlin. Representatives from around the world spoke on the problems facing dairy farmers in their regions. We agreed on global strategies to raise farmgate prices and bring dignity to family dairy farmers.

The European Milk Board hosted the second half of my trip, including tours of dairy farms and milk plants. Our first stop was a 950-cow dairy on a former East German collective farm. The farm buildings and connected methane digester were several years old and received huge government subsidies to keep them operating. There were chronic problems with the digester and at the time the mixer in the tank was broken, requiring special scuba divers to repair it. Similar problems plague manure digesters in Wisconsin, which seem to be on perpetual high-tech life support.

While in Germany we also toured newer 600-800 cow dairies with digesters. The owners explained that these digesters were simply not profitable without huge government subsidies. As problems developed they were forced to install a newer more expensive system, and with that “fix” came newer problems. It seemed this treadmill was mostly designed to benefit sales people, technicians and manufacturers of manure digesters, not family farmers or the environment.

Without a fair milk price that actually covers their cost of production, many of the German farmers said they would not survive through 2010. The same crisis is facing dairy farmers in the U.S. who have endured a 50 percent decline in farmgate prices due to corporate control, even as consumer prices for milk have not budged and the dairy giants report record profits. In contrast, sustainable organic grass-based dairy farmers were a bit better off in Germany, as they are in the U.S., though their future is not secure either.

Numerous studies by Tom Kriegl of the UW Center for Dairy Profitability have shown that the most efficient dairy operations have less than 100 cows, mostly outside and eating grass — yet, such a family farm is not large enough to qualify for taxpayer support and does not create enough manure to require a methane digester.

As long as my tax dollars and those of other organic sustainable farmers are being used to bankroll schemes that just increase pollution for more corporate profit, there will be no economic recovery. Indigenous communities developed “earth-friendly” farming methods that kept our planet healthy for thousands of years. Many of these practices are being incorporated into family farming today. In fact, a recent 2008 study by 400 scientists for the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development concluded that small-scale organic agriculture is not only the best means to feed the world, but also the best response to climate change.

Let’s stop wasting money on expensive digesters for a manure problem that does not need to exist, and put cows back outside on pasture where they belong. When manure is treated as a valuable resource, as it is on small farms, then we can eliminate or drastically reduce the need for petroleum-based chemical fertilizers. Ending factory farm subsidies and promoting sustainable agriculture instead will not only lead to fairer milk prices for family farmers and healthier food choices for consumers, but it will actually help spare the planet from climate change, too.

John Kinsman, an organic dairy farmer from La Valle, is president of Family Farm Defenders. The organization is located in Madison.

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