By Mark Waite
The Pahrump Dairy, which has been an institution in the middle of the Pahrump Valley for 24 years, complete with green fields and cows, but also flies and the occasional smell of manure, is closing this year.
The dairy was designed to milk up to 2,200 cows. Most now have already been shipped off to slaughterhouses, though the hay is still growing and being trucked away to buyers.
Focus Property Group bought the 320-acre dairy and leased it to dairyman Hein Hettinga to keep the water rights. Hettinga, who also owned half a dozen dairies in California and Arizona, made the Washington Post in 2006 when he complained that a milk lobby attempted to shut him down after he operated outside of the federal price support system.
Lenny Badger, who operates the dairy on behalf of the Focus Property Group, couldn’t be reached for comment. But attorney Mark Fiorentino, who represents Focus, confirmed the dairy’s closure.
“It’s a Focus related entity that owns the dairy and has since about 2006. They’re landlord to the dairy operator,” Fiorentino said. “Our tenant, the dairy, is going to stop dairy operations by the end of the year; that’s the plan. They’re going to remain on the property and continue to farm it. But they’re going to cease dairy operations by the end of the year.”
A spokesman for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection said his agency isn’t to blame for the closure, but Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, who managed the dairy until three years ago, said expensive environmental upgrades made the dairy economically unfeasible.
Goedhart said when Rockview Farms left the Pahrump Dairy, Hettinga had a partnership with Amos DeGroot of Rockview Farms, but it dissolved a few years ago.
“About three years ago we saw the handwriting on the wall with having to put more money into the handling system to bring it up to the latest EPA standards. They dissolved their partnership and Hein took over and started running the cows himself. Then as time went on, it’s very hard to make money milking cows and Hein started engaging in conversations with NDEP on what would be spent to keep producing cows there,” Goedhart said.
The dairy had still been operating under an NDEP water discharge permit that expired in January 2009. That permit was to discharge wastewater from the dairy by flood irrigation.
The dairy was classified as a concentrated animal feeding operation CAFO since it housed at least 700 mature dairy cows. The application to renew the permit filed in 2008 stated there were 12 agricultural fields totaling 196 acres bounded by Blagg Road, Irene Street, Lola Street and Basin Avenue. The dairy first opened in 1988 and was first permitted by NDEP in 1994.
At the time of the permit application the dairy milked about 2,400 Holstein cows twice daily and housed about 600 dry cows and young cattle in open containment areas. The milking center included a double-32 stall milking parlor, cow holding pen, a wash pen and three 8,000-gallon milk storage silos. There was also a shop and office building, maternity barn, hoof trimming area, commodity storage shed, a scale, fuel storage, hay storage sheds and employee housing.
NDEP said approximately 5,800 tons of dry manure and 36 million gallons of processed wastewater were generated annually. The wastewater included liquid manure, cow wash water, barn wash water, water from washing milk transport lines and milk storage silos. The dairy requested a daily discharge of up to 200,000 gallons of wastewater per day. The wastewater is applied to the crop every day on a rotating basis. NDEP said corrals were groomed daily to remove manure for odor and fly management; solid waste was transferred off site for composting to the Ponderosa Dairy in Amargosa Valley.
Wastewater was pumped from a sump pit through a separator to remove solids prior to discharging to a concrete mixing tower for blending with groundwater. From the mixing tower the processed wastewater flowed through a 12-inch line that runs the length of the property along Blagg Road to the fields.
The runoff from cropland with the processed wastewater was covered by an agricultural stormwater exemption, providing there was an approved nutrient management plan, NDEP reported.
A previous permit didn’t require flow monitoring, NDEP stated. The proposed permit would also require containment of all runoff of manure and processed wastewater in response to storms that don’t exceed the 25-year, 24-hour event.
Goedhart said the water table was high — NDEP said it varied from only 44 to 52 feet deep — and the current manure system was built in the 1980s.
“When you do flood irrigation a certain amount of that water will perk down to the water level,” Goedhart said. “That water travels into the top 40, 50 feet with some elevated nitrate levels. That’s why a new manure handling system would entail a couple things. A guy would have to put in high density, polyethylene lagoons. Then they would have to store the water and meter it very precisely in the ground. That way the crop uptake matched the application rate. You can’t really do that with flood irrigating. The only way you could do that would be to put in pivot systems.”
“It would take several hundred thousand dollars to take the manure handling system up to shall I say the latest and greatest standards,” he said.
For a dairyman already losing money or not taking in much money, to have to raise $750,000 for manure handling, it made more sense to ship the cows to a slaughterhouse and stop the money drain, Goedhart said.
He said there are some pockets of water with a little higher nitrate level, but he added nitrate levels can be remediated by drilling a recovery well to irrigate the crops.
NDEP spokesman Vinson Guthreau said it’s not unusual for negotiations over discharge permit renewals for large farms to take a while. He said the conditions of the previous permit would just remain in effect.
“During the negotiations of their permit renewal, which is a pretty standard thing, especially with larger operations, they voluntarily decided to begin to relocate their operation. I don’t know that we had a role in that, certainly our permit didn’t,” Guthreau said. “I can’t speak to their business decisions. Their decision to relocate is voluntary. We didn’t ask them to do that. There weren’t any provisions in the permit that asked them to do that. I think the timing was what generated the gossip.”
Guthreau admitted the renewal of their discharge permit was overdue. When asked about the requirements for the lined lagoons and pivot irrigation system, Guthreau said the negotiations aren’t public knowledge until the permit is awarded.
It’s all a moot point anyhow.
“From our perspective, as long as we see progress, if they are indeed closing operations, as long as we see progress to that end, we’ll continue to monitor that. If the facility generates business again and we see operations being re-established there, then we would have to have a conversation about their permit,” Guthreau said.
Goedhart bemoaned the closure as more evidence of the decline in farming across Pahrump Valley and the increasing urbanization.
“Some neighbors will be happy because they’ll have less odor and less flies. I know for a fact a couple neighbors will be happy, some will be sad. They will see the exiting of the dairy as another sign of Pahrump turning into Las Vegas,” Goedhart said.