Dairy daze

How bad do things have to get in California before the gang in Sacramento actually offer to reduce state regulations?

The cows may soon tell us.

Dairy farms bring significant, immediate boosts to local economies. Mike Meissen, vice president for value-added agriculture for the Iowa Area Development Group, says a single dairy cow has an economic impact of $15,000 a year. "So if a thousand cows go into a county, that's $15 million," Mr. Meissen, whose coalition of rural electric cooperatives works to lure new businesses to Iowa, tells The Associated Press.

And one place lots of states have found an increasingly fertile recruiting ground is regulation-snarled California.

Eight states, from Idaho to Iowa, have been urging dairy farmers to relocate from California, the nation's largest milk producer -- and with considerable success. The actual number of cows in California has grown by some 300,000 over the past decade, to keep pace with population growth. But the number of dairies in California has plummeted by more than 500 -- from more than 2,200 dairies to 1,700 last year. Why?

The promise of less regulation resonates loudly in a state that has become a "regulatory nightmare for farmers," explains Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of the Modesto, Calif.-based Western Union Dairymen, which represents nearly two-thirds of California's dairy producers.

It's hard enough for farmers to stay in business in California's crippled economy. Factor in regulations "that you don't have in any other state or around the world," from air and water quality rules to "stop work" orders should you crush a "threatened" rat or bug, to reporting odometer readings on farm vehicles, and the costs become too great to bear, says Mr. Marsh.

Dairy farmer Darin Dykstra left California eight years ago for northwest Iowa. He's thrilled to be free of California's harsh regulations, most notably one that compelled him to install expensive methane digesters over manure lagoons -- and at the same time banned emissions from the engines the digesters power. "Dairymen are trying to do the right thing, but the state is putting up road blocks," Mr. Dykstra says of his former home.

Nevada's economic development agencies already have made waves in California with high-profile, to-the-point advertising campaigns inviting frustrated California industries to relocate to the Silver State. Officials should make sure Golden State dairy farmers are getting the message that their escape need not take them halfway across the country -- they'll be better off simply moving next door.

Yes, urban sprawl is part of California's problem, as are still-high land costs, which make it hard for farmers to keep enough acreage to grow their own feed.

But when the "flight from California" starts to include cows, one wonders if even the Alice-in-Wonderland crowd in Sacramento won't eventually say "Enough is enough."