WESTON - Walter Manders and his brother, Hein, are third-generation dairy farmers who left their home in the Netherlands to milk cows in America.
Yet the 600 cows on their farm south of Weston have caused a pronounced split between those who say they should be able to pursue free enterprise and those who fear all those cows and all that manure only can lead to environmental and health problems.
With the news that two much larger dairies may be built in southern Wood County, the debate is heating up all over again.
“Manders are good managers. They know how to do things, and they are very particular,” said Harold Bateson, who sells hay and corn silage to Manders Dairy and uses its manure to fertilize his fields.
Mr. Bateson, a former Wood County auditor who farms about 2,000 acres with his sons, insists he is among the “quiet majority” of farmers who support the large dairies.
John Roller, who lives less than a half-mile from the Manders' cows, sums it up in two words: “It stinks.”
“The odor here is very wind specific,” he said. “Whatever way the wind is blowing is who gets it, and it's a curl-your-nose-up, rank smell.”
Mr. Roller is a trustee with Wood County Citizens Opposed to Factory Farms. The group formed in 2001 after Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development LLC of Wauseon bought the 40 acres at Range Line and Maplewood roads where the Manders Dairy is now.
On Saturday, representatives of the group met with Jerry City residents to share what they know about the farms, but even they say it's unlikely the proposed dairies can be stopped.
“I'll be honest. It's going to be slim to none,” said Julie Baumgardner, who lives a few miles south of the Manders Farm. “The problem is, Vreba-Hoff doesn't care. If they want to put it there, they're going to put it there and nobody's going to stop them.”
With the assistance of Vreba-Hoff, the Vander Heijning family of Belgium plans to build a 925-head dairy farm on 158 acres it bought last year on Cygnet Road between State Rt. 235 and Range Line Road about six miles west of Cygnet.
The Van Rooijen family of the Netherlands wants to build a 1,500-head dairy farm on a 200-acre site at Jerry City and Solether roads just west of Jerry City. It has not bought the land yet.
Because the dairies would have more than 700 cows, each would have to receive a state permit to build and a permit to operate. Their applications must contain plans for everything from disposal of manure to disposal of dead cows.
Deborah Abbott, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture's livestock environmental permitting program, said the state also does a “background compliance check even extending to overseas and other states” to find out if the farmer had previous health violations.
Ms. Abbott said once the state completes its review of the applications, it will hold a public meeting to hear concerns and answer questions.
“We put it out for public comment because we want to hear from county residents,” she said. “Many permits have changed because of public comments - we have added requirements.”
Despite the furor, county health officials say that in the nearly two years the Manders Dairy has been operating, they have not substantiated any leaks or spills from either the fields that receive the manure or from the lagoon that holds the manure until it can be applied to fields. Other than odor, which is virtually uncontrollable where farm animals are concerned, they know of no health or environmental problems there.
The Manders brothers and their seven employees milk the cows three times a day, producing 5,000 gallons of milk every 24 hours.
Walter Manders, 30, said his parents and older brother “are involved” and frequently visit from the Netherlands. He won't discuss his neighbors' mistrust. “Everybody can have an opinion. When I have an opinion, I make sure what I say is right. Otherwise. I keep my mouth shut,” he said.
Larry Sorrells, Wood County health commissioner, said his department has been concerned from the start “because we heard all the horrible reports of what was happening at other places. The potential for environmental damage exists in these facilities. They store huge amounts of manure. I think both sides would say that, but the opposition would say the dairies shouldn't exist at all. The other side would say with proper management practices, everything will be fine.”
The health department does not take sides, but it has been proactive.
Before the Manders Dairy was built, it tested all wells within a mile of the farm. It tested water in nearby ditches and streams and performed fly testing as well so that it would have a baseline in case problems arose.
The health department also developed the state's first manure-spill response plan that spells out exactly who will respond and what action each should take.
One thing the health department hasn't done is to test the wells near the Manders Dairy since it began milking cows in June, 2002. It has had no requests to do so but would be open to doing that, Mr. Sorrells said.
Cecilia Conway, Vreba-Hoff spokesman, understands residents' concerns but said they need to visit a dairy, get the facts, and stop relying on misinformation. “The farmer's going to be living there too, and he has the same concerns,” she said.