The number of dairies in California has plummeted by more than 500 in the past decade, with many moving to other states enticing them with promises of lower costs and simpler regulations.
Eight states, ranging from Idaho to Iowa, have been courting dairies from California, the nation's largest milk producer. The reason is clear: Cows mean cash for local economies.
Mike Meissen, vice president for value added agriculture for the Iowa Area Development Group, estimated each dairy cow has an economic impact of $15,000 a year.
"So if a thousand cows go into a county, that's $15 million," said Meissen, whose group is made up of rural electric cooperatives that work to bring new business to Iowa.
While officials in other states offer California farmers a number of reasons to consider moving, one of the biggest incentives seems to be the promise of fewer regulations.
It's a message that Michael Marsh, chief executive of the Modesto, Calif.-based Western Union Dairymen, said resonates in a state he calls a "regulatory nightmare for farmers." From air and water quality rules to reporting odometer readings on farm vehicles, regulations make it difficult for farmers to do business in California, he said.
"There are regulations you have here that you don't have in any other state or around the world," said Marsh, whose organization represents 60 percent of California's dairy producers.
Darin Dykstra left California in 2002 to start a dairy in northwest Iowa. Several factors drew him and his wife to Iowa, he said, including ties to Dordt College, the Sioux Center school they graduated from, and Wells Dairy, which buys milk from the Dykstras' 3,000 cows and is known for its Blue Bunny ice cream.
Dykstra also likes the slower pace, access to Christian schools for his children and distance from urban sprawl.
"Living in Southern California, there used to be grape vineyards next to our dairy. Now there are houses there," he said. "It's not ideal to have your farm in the middle of all that and slowly we were getting pushed out — all the dairies were getting pushed out — so you have to move to the Central Valley or move out of state, and I chose to move out of state."
Because land is cheaper in Iowa, he also could afford to grow feed corn on about 1,750 acres, rather than buying it as he did in California.
Dykstra still owns part of his family's farm in California. But he said he was glad to be away from the state's regulations, such the required installation of expensive methane digesters over manure lagoons accompanied by a ban on emissions from the engines the digesters power.
"Dairymen are trying to do the right thing, but the state is putting up road blocks," he said.
Marsh said stories like Dykstra's are all too familiar. At least eight other states are trying to attract California dairies — Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Texas and Wyoming.
"Other states come to farm shows and say 'Come to our state where this is little regulation, low taxes, jobs, state grants.' So for a lot of farmers, they look at that and the grass may be greener," Marsh said.
Iowa, which is known mostly for hogs and corn, has been able to attract enough dairies from California and elsewhere to become the nation's 12th largest dairy producer.
Texas also has lured dairies with what it claims are less onerous regulations, an attractive climate and large feed supplies. Its dairy cow population has grown from about 17,000 in 2000 to more than 200,000 this year, said Ellen Jordan, a dairy specialist with the Texas A&M extension. Overall, Texas ranks No. 8 among dairy states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Producers who come here know what the regulations are," she said. "They can get a permit to operate and they know the area they are choosing is very ag friendly."
Meanwhile, the number of California dairies dropped from more than 2,200 dairies in 1999 to 1,700 in 2009.
Still, what that means isn't entirely clear. Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said the decrease happened as the industry shrunk and some dairies bought others out.
"It isn't just farms or herds disappearing," he said. "In many cases, they were absorbed into other herds."
The state had about 1.8 million dairy cows last year, down some from the year before, but still more than 300,000 more than it had in 1999, according the USDA.
Van Rein declined to "wade into" issues of California's regulatory climate, saying the Legislature makes the rules and agencies enforce them. But he acknowledged some communities didn't plan their growth well, leading to homes bumping up against farms.
"In our Central Valley, where most of our farms are, they have learned that lesson and are taking steps to improve their planning before they build subdivisions that are bordering farms," Van Rein said.
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