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E-M:/ Behind the Manure Disaster: Vreba Hoff Dairy LLC -- CAFO Kings of MI, OH and IN


Vreba Hoff Dairy Development LLC and associated CAFOs at heart of Lenawee/Hillsdale Manure Disaster

To understand how the continuing water quality disaster in south central Michigan could have come about, you have to look to several key factors and primary players.  First, the regulatory black hole created by Michigan's DEQ and Department of Agriculture under the Engler Administration and the Michigan Legislature, with great cheering on by the Michigan Farm Bureau and the MSU Agricultural Extension services, meant that our state has ZERO regulatory barriers.  That smiting of state laws and regulations has created opportunities for constructing poorly designed, inappropriately sited concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with inadequate land for proper waste disposal anywhere in Michigan's rich agricultural areas.  Michigan officials constantly claimed, (as recently as in testimony given this year by MDA Director Dan Wyant before the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Tourism Committee) that our state was not going to see disastrous consequences of overdevelopment of CAFOs here because land prices were too high and community opposition would prevent those facilities from being built.   Having removed all environmental and zoning tools that could have prevented uncontrolled development of CAFOs while creating an astonishing fiction that rural communities were not at risk, the Engler administration turned its back on the pleas from townships, families, farmers, environmentalists and community organizations statewide who have borne the brunt of these horrific facilities.

This set of opportunities for a CAFO invasion in Michigan by itself would not necessarily have caused the enormous and rapid expansion of these facilities that is still unabated today.  In addition to the gaping hole left by the state officials' malign neglect, CAFO purveyors have busily worked to convince existing operations to convert AND, as we have seen so graphically played out in Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties, opportunistic non-Michigan CAFO companies have put Michigan in their cross-hairs because of our lax standards

The Wal-Mart of CAFOs?

A major player the CAFO invasion in Michigan, as well as in Ohio and Indiana, has been the Vreba Hoff Dairy Development LLC.  On their website (http://www.vrebahoff.com/) , Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development LLC describes their business this way:

"Utilizing the experience of its management in both the Dutch and American dairy industries, Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, L.L.C., assists European and Canadian dairy producers desiring to relocate their operations to the United States. In order to successfully relocate the dairy producer, Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, pulls together all the pieces to create a new dairy facility. "

The Vreba-Hoff Service Package, also on their website, is described as follows:

"Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, pulls together all the pieces to create a new dairy facility. Their services include:

During the past few years Michigan, Ohio and Indiana have all seen dairy facilities built under what some would characterize as franchise or branch arrangements created by Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development LLC.   Articles in the Dayton Daily News on December 6th last year discussed this company as well as others (http://www.activedayton.com/ddn/project/farm/1206future.html) and explains more about their operations. (this article was one of an excellent Dayton Daily News series on CAFOs -- the Ohio press, particularly in Toledo and Dayton has been aggressively reporting on the CAFO issue.)  
Last summer, Sierra Club and local groups organized a protest in front of one of the Vreba-Hoff CAFOs in Lenawee County after learning that the company was hosting 35 farmers from the Netherlands on a tour to encourage them to take advantage of the company's services and move to our region.  In the course of interviews given to the media during the protest, Vreba-Hoff officials were clear that one of the great attractions in the US vs. Europe was the significantly lower environmental standards and fewer restrictions on the size of the facilities.  In Ohio where for a number of years CAFO permits have been required for CAFOs with 1000 animal unit (700 dairy cows) or more, the facilities have most or all been built just below the permit levels.  Rumors have circulated among the groups fighting CAFOs in MI, OH and IN that Vreba Hoff has a goal of building 100 dairies in the three state border region, although the source of that speculation is unknown. 
Running afoul of Pollution Laws
But recently, the company has begun to draw significant negative attention.  On January 6th of this year, the Ohio Env. Protection Agency proposed to fine 10 of the Vreba-Hoff facilities in that state $117,000 for violations of stormwater protection laws (see Ohio Env. Council background: http://www.theoec.org/ffarms_news.html ).  In response, Vreba Hoff's attorney was said by the Dayton Daily News to have claimed "Vreba-Hoff’s contractors are solely responsible for following the storm water rules, and that the EPA is wrongly penalizing Vreba-Hoff for the contractors’ mistakes."  ( http://www.theoec.org/pdfs/ffarms_news_proposespenalty.pdf ). 
In Michigan, all of the Vreba-Hoff affiliates in Lenawee and Hillsdale County have been cited for illegal water discharges during the past three years (see ECCSCM's list of violations, which also includes some non-Vreba Hoff facilities, at http://www.nocafos.org/violations.htm ).  The Jelsma Mericam Dairy is being sued by National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club based on their violations, and Vreba Hoff 1 Dairy and Vreba Hoff 2 Dairy each reached consent judgments with the Michigan DEQ in late January 2003 for a variety of violations, although each of these facilities is expected to rack up additional violations for discharges during this past two weeks.
As the citizens of Lenawee and Hillsdale County continue to suffer the horrible effects of animal wastes in their streams from the multiple Vreba Hoff facilities there, Sierra Club has heard rumors that a major federal investigation into ALL of the Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development facilities in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana may be commencing.  Ohio's enforcement action, which demonstrates a conclusion that the individual dairy operations are more closely linked than the company claims, may suggest an approach a federal investigation could take.  The USEPA is reportedly closely tracking the pollution problems caused by the dozens of Vreba-Hoff affiliates already in operation.  If and when an investigation into these operations ramps up, one question that must be answered is whether or not the turnkey operations that Vreba-Hoff is setting up are fundamentally flawed in design.  If so, it is critical that federal and/or state agencies act aggressively and swiftly to assure that they are fixed or shut down. 
No community should EVER again have to endure the level of Dante's Inferno that is being visited upon the people of Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties.   
Anne Woiwode

Anne Woiwode, Staff Director, Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter
109 East Grand River Avenue, Lansing, Michigan 48906
517-484-2372; fax 517-484-3108  anne.woiwode@sierraclub.org
visit the Mackinac Chapter on the web at http://michigan.sierraclub.org

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