Vern Schiller has seen his beef cattle farming operation on Draper Road shrink over the years.
His herd of about 25 is down from the about 1,200 cattle he once had on the farm before much of the land was developed into a residential area last decade.
The farm he manages, like most in McHenry County, is far too small to be a concern to the environmental activists who are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the ammonia that farm animals produce as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. But that doesn’t stop Schiller and other area farmers from keeping a watchful eye on such efforts.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan organization started in 2002 to advocate for more effective enforcement of environmental laws, filed the ammonia petition in April.
In an email from the EPA, spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said “the EPA has received the petition, which it will carefully review and evaluate.” She had no further comment.
Schiller said he believed that animal-rights activists were the driving forces behind the proposed regulations.
“If they want .... the cattleman to get out of business, it’s very simple, all they have to do is quit eating beef,” Schiller said. “Tell all of their friends, and ask all of their friends not to eat beef. If none of them eat beef, what the hell am I here for?”
Schiller said organizations such as the Illinois Beef Association and the Illinois Farm Bureau were aware of the proposed regulations and were monitoring them, but not actively fighting them.
At midday, Schiller feeds his diminished herd a snack. From a small hand bucket, he spreads some feed on the ground or holds it up to the cattle. Cattle roaming the fields nibble on grass.
The manure the animals produce is dropped on the fields. Manure that is left in lots, he will scrape up and give to people who want to use it in their gardens.
In large quantities, manure has the Environmental Integrity Project worried. According to the group’s petition, the ammonia produced can lead to health issues.
“The people who are concerned about what we’re doing, find a better way to do the job,” Schiller said. “Find a better way to do what we’re doing, and we’ll do that.”
Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said the concern came from the gasses that animals emit, from manure used to fertilize fields, and from large lagoons where animal waste is stored.
She said the main concern regarding ammonia pollution was from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The EPA has different definitions for different animals as to what is considered a large concentrated animal feeding operation.
Fox example, 700 or more dairy cattle is considered a large CAFO, but there needs to be at least 1,000 beef cattle to be regarded as such.
Ammonia pollution can cause respiratory illness, sore throats, bronchitis and runny noses, among other ailments, Heinzen said.
“We want to make sure every community has the right to breathe safe air,” Heinzen said.
Heinzen did have suggestions on how to limit ammonia pollution.
Farmers can cover their waste lagoons, or make sure the manure used to fertilize the ground is mixed into the soil rather than just placed on top of it.
The EIP also recommends allowing animals to roam a pasture and eat grass, or putting special additives in animals’ food, Heinzen said.
If the EPA does decide to set standards for ammonia pollution, each state would have flexibility on how to address the standards, Heinzen said.
“This shouldn’t implicate small farms that are not emitting a significant amount of ammonia,” Heinzen said.
Danielle Diamond is a Crystal Lake attorney for the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water.
She said that most counties and rural residents don’t have a say when a large CAFO wants to locate in their area, and they should, because of the strong odors created by large amounts of ammonia.
“It really does impact quality of life,” Diamond said.
Many members of the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water are small family farmers, Diamond said, adding that huge farms should be regulated.
“We’re trying to protect the rights of the traditional family farmer,” Diamond said.
Dan Volkers of the McHenry County Farm Bureau added that many farmers already knife in manure into the soil to reduce the smell.
The manure is a necessary fertilizer, Volkers said.
Sue Dietz owns Harvard Eggs, Feed & Produce with her husband, Bruce. They consider their operation a small family farm.
They have 450 chickens producing eggs. The manure those chickens produce is pumped into adjacent crop fields to reduce the amount of fertilizer that farmers need to buy so they can grow corn and soybeans.
The manure adds nutrients to the fields, Sue Dietz said.
“It’s part of sustainable agriculture,” she said. “The chickens are fertilizing the crops that are feeding the chickens.”
The largest dairy farm in the area is the Kooistra Dairy Farm in Woodstock, which has 250 cows.
Linnea Kooistra, who owns the farm with her husband, Joel, said farms in Illinois already face plenty of regulation.
She cites the Livestock Management Facilities Act, which regulates how far back a farm has to be from a residential area depending on the farm’s size, among other things.
The act protects the community from ag-associated odors, protects water quality, and allows farmers to make a living, Kooistra said. Manure on the fields is part of the life cycle on the farm, she added.
And because farmers live on the farm, they, too, care about their conditions and making sure the land is viable for the next generation.
“We breathe the air, drink the water,” Kooistra said.
“Farmers are always concerned about the environment. We live it.”