The scenario seemed unlikely at best. Mike Callicrate — cattleman, owner of Ranch Foods Direct, good guy in the best-selling book Fast Food Nation — hit with a list of Environmental Protection Agency violations.
It happened this August. (The EPA busted five other operations at the same time.) Since then, Callicrate has issued media releases and held a press conference and tour of his Kansas feedlot. He says it's clean as a whistle, and that the EPA is acting under the influence of big meat packers who are looking to drive guys like him out of business.
"This is discrimination," Callicrate says from his Colorado Springs office. "The problem, to me, is the fear and intimidation that is caused by these tactics."
The EPA, meanwhile, has been waging its own media battle. Last week, it even sent out a press release in response to Callicrate's allegation that the agency considers hay a pollutant. (The EPA press release says that's nonsense. However, upon further questioning, the agency says it does consider silage and grains to be polluting, since their runoff can starve water of oxygen.)
Anyway, the EPA violations include overfilling a retention pond, failure to cover the feedlot, failure to keep adequate records, and failure to conduct proper testing of manure used to fertilize grazing lands. Callicrate doesn't argue that he was in violation, but he suspects bigger feedlots don't face the same scrutiny.
EPA spokesperson Kris Lancaster says the agency checked in on Callicrate because of previous violations at the feedlot recorded by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He also noted that Callicrate's operation, which is permitted for 12,000 head of cattle (though only 3,200 were on the property at the time of inspection) is among the largest 5 percent of animal feeding operations in the region (Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri).
Fines could have reached $37,500 per day, per violation, but Lancaster says the EPA does not plan to levy any because Callicrate is working to comply with the order. The cattleman has hired Murrison Environmental, which does environmental consulting, engineering and land surveying, to help get him back into compliance. It will cost $10,000 to $15,000 up front, plus $4,000 to $5,000 annually, and an added $7,000 to $8,000 every five years. That's if everything goes well. And then there's hours of staff time to do all the added paperwork.
Scott Murrison, owner of Murrison Environmental, says he has 31 feedlot clients that range from small to large, and he's seen how tough the industry has gotten.
"Mike's in a pretty good position, where he can still hire someone to get him in compliance," he says. "There's a lot of small farms that just can't."
That sentiment is echoed by Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, the second-largest trade association for the cattle industry, who has stood by Callicrate. He notes that Callicrate actually is the little guy — in 2010, 29 percent of all cattle were fattened at feedlots with a 50,000-plus cattle capacity. Guys like Callicrate are getting rarer, he says, as big meat packers seek to "vertically integrate" by either owning mega-feedlots, or controlling smaller feedlots through contracts that control everything from how the cattle is raised, to how much is paid for it. More than 40 percent of cattle operations have disappeared since 1980.
With pressures increasing and the market becoming less competitive, a tougher regulatory environment may push a lot of smaller farms off the edge, he says.