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

It’s a windy day in LeGrand as Eddie Hoekstra walks through rows of cattle on his farm. Hoekstra manages around 8,000 cows on his 2,290 acre farm called Hillcrest Dairy. He is 53 years old and has been running 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 are graduates in agriculture and a third son also works in the dairy.

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

This is one of the reasons why Hoekstra submitted a proposal to the county to increase the number of cows on his farm by 1,700. This would bring the total herd to nearly 9,750. The proposal includes the construction of approximately 195,000 square feet of new stalls. And in a time of record inflation, he sees expansion as key to the survival of his family business.

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

Merced County is the second-largest dairy-producing county in the state. The county’s dairy industry generated more than $1 billion in profits in 2020, which is about one-third of the county’s agricultural output, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

But just down the road from Hillcrest Dairy is the unincorporated community of Planada, home to 4,000 people. The community is predominantly Latino and approximately 28% of residents live below the poverty line. There, some residents fear that more cows will lower their quality of life.

Residents divided over dairy farm expansion

Rita Rodriguez chops cilantro for her albondigas, or meatball soup, in her kitchen in Planada. She and her husband have lived in this house for almost 30 years. Rodriguez, 67, says the worst part of life a mile from the farm is the smell.

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

She says it doesn’t smell every day, but it is common and can last for hours at a time.

Dairy cows are milked at Hillcrest Dairy in Merced County, Calif., Thursday, March 17, 2022. ANDREW KUHN/[email protected]

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 smell.

He feels “anxiety, anger, because there are times when you can’t do anything about it, especially right now,” he says. “And then in the past when we’ve gone and spoken with the board of supervisors, it just goes in one ear and comes 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 family of dairy farmers. He says he understands residents’ concerns, but the occasional smell is part of life in a farming community

“You’re going to get some stench for it for a little while because the lagoon sediment passes with the water,” he says. “So it’s going to smell a little, but it’s going away.”

Pedrozo says Hoekstra’s contributions to the community far outweigh the downsides of the cow manure smell.

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

“He donates for Community Day. He gives to churches,” she says. “He donates to any children’s program and constantly donates money to Planada.”

But community advocates say that’s not enough. Madeline Harris of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability says California’s Environmental Quality Act requires the county to review 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 don’t actually mitigate the environmental impacts that are caused to the community, then the expansion of the dairy shouldn’t be authorized under the CEQA. ,” she says.

Could a dairy digester help reduce odours?

Back at Hillcrest Dairy, Eddie Hoekstra says he tries to stay compliant with the various state regulations. And he tries to be a good neighbor.

I said from the start 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 supplier to Hilmar Cheese Company Thursday, March 17, 2022. ANDREW KUHN/[email protected]

He is also considering installing a dairy digester which, among other things, could help reduce the smell of the dairy.

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

Hoakstra says he signed and submitted a letter of intent for a digester to the county.

“If we agree, then the next step would be for [the company we partner with] to abandon the plan, then they would submit it to the county,he says.

But Harris, with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, says dairy digesters don’t solve all the problems faced by communities near dairies.

“It wouldn’t address enteric emissions from cow burps, so it wouldn’t even address all of the methane emissions produced by dairies,” she says. “And it wouldn’t solve a lot of other nuisances, like odors and flies that communities face if all the manure isn’t covered.”

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

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