Roadside Signs Mark State’s Certified Dairies

Ag Alert
March 24, 2004
By Robyn Rominger 

Roadside signs will now mark California dairies that get certified for implementing environmentally friendly practices. 

So far, the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program has certified 200 dairies. About 1,200 more dairy producers have taken CDQAP classroom training and are poised to pursue environmental certification by having their dairies evaluated for compliance with all applicable local, state and federal environmental laws. 

“People who were so fearful of the regulatory process and never thought they’d be able to come into compliance now find themselves with a plaque that demonstrates compliance hanging in front of their dairies,” said Chuck Ahlem, California Department of Food and Agriculture undersecretary. “It’s really satisfying to see that kind of energy from people who reach that benchmark in their lives and their businesses.” 

Ahlem spoke at a press conference last week at the Van Exel Dairy in Lodi and helped unveil the new, brightly colored, aluminum signs that allow certified producers to display their commitment to the environment. The signs are part of an ongoing outreach effort by the CDQAP, which is a voluntary partnership among dairy producers, government agencies and academia to address the issues that impact the state’s 2,250 dairies. 

The press conference in Lodi was one of six events held statewide. The others were held in Bakersfield, Denair, Hanford, Petaluma and Tulare. 

“This is a great day,” said Hank Van Exel, whose certified dairy is located adjacent to Interstate 5 and thus is highly visible to thousands of motorists every day. “It’s a positive step toward a better environment and the kind of dairy industry we all want. 

“I think Chuck hit the nail on the head when he said that a lot of dairymen were scared,” Van Exel added. “I was apprehensive, to say the least, of how this whole program would work. I think one great aspect of this program and the signs coming up is that the fear factor might leave.” 

There are four components of the program: environmental stewardship; controlling Johne’s disease (an incurable wasting disease of cattle); food safety and emergency preparedness; and animal health and welfare. The environmental component of the certification program assists dairies in developing water collection and storage systems to prevent animal waste from moving offsite. 

“It is important for the dairy industry to have a tool that provides education on manure management,” said Wayne Nastri, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest Region. “Certification signifies to the EPA that these producers, like the Van Exel Dairy, are serious about their role as environmental stewards.” 

“Certification requires producers to meet a high standard of protecting the environment. That high standard gives credibility to the program and, by extension, to the certified producers. That’s a win-win outcome.” – Ria De Grassi, California Farm Bureau Federation director of livestock, animal health and welfare.

The State Water Resources Control Board, which has 20 inspectors who make sure California dairies are complying with government regulations, is a partner in the program and participated in the sign-unveiling ceremony. 

“This program is a way to make sure that the dairymen know the rules and are doing the right thing,” said John Menke of the state water board. 

The California Milk Advisory Board has identified environmental stewardship as a consumer issue. The board hired the California Dairy Research Foundation to conduct producer education. 

Joe O’Donnell, executive director of the California Dairy Research Foundation, said, “Consumers care about environmental stewardship and we want to maintain a positive attitude on the part of our consumers for our dairy products.” 

Environmental certification may be used as a marketing tool. 

“It’s a marketing issue for them because they can say, ‘We’re utilizing all the best management practices available,'” Nastri said. 

Some dairy processors encourage their suppliers to become certified and may even offer incentive programs to the dairies that participate. 

“We’ve been encouraging our producers to be proactive in participating in the program. One of the things that we did for our producers was to set up a bonus program that incentivized them to attend,” said Denise Mullinax, dairy environmental and quality coordinator at Hilmar Cheese Co. in Hilmar. 

New state and federal rules approved in 2003 created a system of permits and accompanying fees for most California dairies. As part of the development of the new rules, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a 50 percent reduction on permit fees for CDQAP-certified dairies, in order to encourage dairies to become certified. The savings range from about $160 to more than $2,000 per year, depending on the size of the facility. 

“These savings can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year for individual dairies,” said Ahlem, who is one of the program’s founders. “This adds another great reason to pursue full certification under the program. This is further recognition of the value of this program.” 

Environmentally certified dairies undergo a rigorous procedure combining several hours of classroom lectures on regulations and environmental planning for their dairy operations, followed by “homework” that includes preparing a site evaluation, drainage plan, nutrient management plan and emergency response plan. The final step is an independent, third-party evaluation of the dairy to certify compliance with all government regulations. 

As the program becomes more widely recognized, there is a great opportunity for expansion, said Michael Payne, program director and a University of California, Davis, veterinarian. 

“Many of these producers took many hours of their time to take the classes and to learn about the regulations,” Payne said. “We think when many of them get the latest information, they will be motivated to take the next step, to certification. For this reason, we believe the time is right for an expanded outreach effort, to tell producers about the growing number of reasons to certify.” 

In addition to the roadside sign program, thousands of brochures and newsletters will be mailed to dairy producers and community leaders to educate them about the program, which is continually evolving to encompass new regulatory requirements. 

“We’re actively designing new parts of the program to increase the focus on new air and water quality requirements and regulations,” Payne said. “Certification is not permanent, and producers must periodically be recertified to ensure they are still in compliance.” 

Participating dairy producers must get recertified every five years. 

Payne said the environmental and Johne’s disease components of the program have been completed. “Two modules are under curriculum development,” Payne said. “They are the animal welfare module and the food safety and emergency preparedness module.” The animal welfare module will involve meat processors, while the food safety and emergency preparedness module “will address the concerns of agroterrorism.” 

Ria de Grassi, California Farm Bureau Federation director of livestock, animal health and welfare, said, “Certification requires producers to meet a high standard of protecting the environment. That high standard gives credibility to the program and, by extension, to the certified producers. That’s a win-win outcome.” 

Credit: California Farm Bureau Federation