New Mexico is the nation’s seventh largest producer of milk. More importantly, it is the fastest growing dairy state, and, as of this year, home to North America’s largest cheese plant, a facility that extrudes one truckload of processed cheese every hour.

In some ways the dairy industry is easy to forget about, even if you live here. Its activity is concentrated in the eastern and southern part of the state, sections of which are so remote that their only neighbors are Air Force bases and a weapons-testing range. But given the impact this industrial-scale production of nature’s “most perfect food” is having on human, animal, and environmental health, it’s worth keeping a close eye on.

Dirty Water

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I have written on the subject of New Mexico’s dairy industry on other occasions, and will have a longer piece appearing in the Sierra Club magazine later this year. But it seems no matter which you way you turn these days in the so-called Land of Enchantment, you’re can’t help but step in some cow-related substance. For instance, groundwater contamination is so severe at approximately 100 factory dairy farms (about 60% of those monitored by state agencies) that the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has decided to take no more bull from the dairy industry. In early April, the agency sent letters to 15 factory dairy farms in the southern end of the state requiring them to clean up their contaminated groundwater.

I emphasized “requiring” because past efforts by the NMED to force Big Dairy to clean up its act have been more like a game of footsie than the real deal. One doesn’t have to speculate too deeply to surmise that the agency’s previous go-slow approach to groundwater enforcement had something to do with state politics. New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson, an obvious presidential candidate, wants to preserve his New Democrat ethos by not appearing hostile to the state’s agribusiness interests. Go to the dairy industry’s booth at any of the state’s agricultural expositions and you’ll see photographs of the Gov’s hardhat-adorned puss proudly displayed, shovel in hand, breaking ground at the cheese-plant construction site.

But what’s good for state politics may not be good for national politics. The political winds are finally picking up the fetid odor of manure lagoons and wafting them in the direction of more sensitive national noses, which may be why this NMED clampdown has some teeth. Each dairy will have to shell out anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million for clean-up costs. Since the contaminated groundwater plume emanating from these dairies now threatens homeowners’ wells, NMED feels obliged to give the dairy industry about as much wiggle room as their farmers give their confined Holsteins. One particularly egregious violator, Del Oro Dairy of Anthony, New Mexico, had recorded nitrate levels 19 times higher than the state’s allowable standard. Del Oro’s readings for additional contaminants, chloride and TDS (total dissolved solids), each exceeded the standard by six-fold. Excessive nitrates in human drinking water can cause “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that compromises the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain.

According to sources within NMED, these actions are only the beginning. The plan is to move systematically against sets of five or so dairies every six months until all the violators have cleaned up their s**t — a process that will take years.

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No Water

Most of us never see the hundreds of small-town daily newspapers that dot America’s rural landscape. What passes for current events in these place can be dreadfully boring, and because everybody knows everybody, a small-town editor would be better off disarming suicide bombers in Baghdad than writing fiery editorials against the local business establishment. But occasionally those straightforward newspaper accounts of local commission meetings reveal a hair-raising truth.

Such was the case with a recent article from the Portales News-Tribune, located in eastern New Mexico’s Roosevelt County, home of 80,000 dairy cattle. Hydro-geologist Amy Ewing reported at a public meeting (attended by exactly nine people) that the Ogallala Aquifer, upon which the area depends for its water, will be at an all-time low by 2020. Over the last 60 years, reported Ewing, the water table has dropped from about 18 feet below ground to 110 feet. When the saturation thickness of the aquifer’s water (the amount of water from the aquifer’s bottom to its top) reaches 30 feet, it becomes essentially undrinkable. According to Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega, Jr., “there are already areas in [Roosevelt] county where the saturation thickness … is less than 40 feet.” Ewing concluded by saying, “water levels are falling, and they are not going back up.”

Who’s the culprit? Ewing said irrigation agriculture (this includes dairies and the neighboring cheese plant) is responsible for most of the area’s water usage. So that means the dairy industry’s growth will be curtailed and forced to conserve water, right? Not according to the News-Tribune story. There are no plans at present to require irrigation farmers to conserve water or to even meter how much they use. If conservation is mandated, it will apparently fall on the backs of homeowners and non-agricultural businesses. The issue was summed up Irene Jones, a member of a Roosevelt County farming family: “The bottom line is the water will run out …. The land is not sustainable as cropland.”

Dirty Air

Next to water, the story that should be getting the most attention is air. Geri Jaramillo, New Mexico’s Asthma Program Coordinator, told me recently that close to 99% of the requests she receives from around the state for asthma education come from southeastern New Mexico, particularly from home daycare providers. That’s not surprising, since this region’s asthma rate is three times the state average. It’s also home to the state’s highest concentration of factory dairy farms.

Coincidental? The New Mexico dairy industry thinks so. They say there’s no scientific evidence that the bacteria-laden dust churned up by the hooves of thousands of cows is responsible for the region’s asthma problems. Since the State of New Mexico has not deigned to sample air quality in much of the region, it has been difficult to determine the exact cause and effect. But reports from the Roosevelt County Public Health Council indicate that also may change. A member of the council advised me that a joint air-monitoring project involving Texas A&M and New Mexico State University may begin soon.

What can you do? Don’t drink milk (the evidence is mounting that, except for mother’s milk, it doesn’t do a body good, but I like it anyway). Buy dairy products whose labels you can trust (good luck deconstructing milk-carton prose). Harangue state and federal officials — elected and appointed — to ban, restrict, and regulate factory dairy farms. Get to know a dairy farmer or at least a dairy co-op (I like Organic Valley) whose representations you can believe.

But whatever you do, pay attention to where and how your milk is produced. There is always someone downwind and downstream from those cows.