Kevin L. Hoover
BLOOMFIELD/COASTAL GROVE CHARTER SCHOOL – Goat cheese, cookies and controversy awaited representatives of Cypress Grove Chevre and concerned area residents at a Monday, June 13 meeting in the Bloomfield/Coastal Grove Charter School School auditorium.
By 6:30 p.m., the announced start time, all the 55 or so semicircularly-arranged chairs were already filled,. Another 50 attendees standing around on the periphery amid refreshment tables and several easels holding photos and graphics of the planned goat dairy project.
“This is reminding me of a meeting several years ago,” quipped Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace, referring to neighborhood meetings over the future of what is now the Sunny Brae Forest. But while this night's meeting was to include frank exchanges, it never matched the early 2000s' Sunny Brae meetings' levels of contentiousness, or even the degree of heat generated over other Arcata Bottom projects.
Facilitator George Williamson had planned to go around the room and have attendees introduce themselves, but the sheer numbers rendered that impractical.
A skilled moderator, Williamson set a congenial tone by asking for a show of hands as to whether the proper term for ths area is "Bottom" or "Bottoms." Bottoms won by a few upraised arms, with younger folk favoring the plural term. “It looks generational,” Williamson said of the never-ending nomenclature debate.
After a quick rundown of ground rules, mainly reminding people to remain cordial, Williamson introduced CGC founder Mary Keehn. It was a relatively rare public appearance for Keehn, who is said to eschew the limelight.
Keehn said she has been a Humboldt County resident for 40 years. She got her first goats in 1972 to obtain healthy milk for her young daughter. One thing led to another and she was soon taking show goats around the country, winning awards.
Thirty years ago, she founded CC in McKinleyville, getting Los Bagels and Larrupin’ Café to help introduce her chevre to a public unfamiliar with goat cheese. Success and recognition led to expansion, and the modern production facility on Q Street went into operation eight years ago.
“Our biggest problem has been getting goat milk,” Keehn said. Further, the most common complaint heard from residents is that CGC doesn’t have goats any goats on-site.
She said she resisted creating a resident goat herd, as the fragile animals require constant maintenance, a huge commitment. “We were interested in doing a dairy unless we could do it really well,” she said.
She said CGC has massively supported local goat ranchers, providing all manner of goat management and veterinary assistance in order to grow the dairy goat population. The effort met with “very little success... we have a hard time getting enough milk,” Keehn said.
After selling the company to Switzerland-based Emmi, a dairy farmer cooperative last year, Keehn said she had to beg the company to invest in a goat dairy. Emmi, she said, is mostly cow-based, with CGC its only goat dairy. Its agreement will be to “keep Cypress Grove in Humboldt County.”
No Emmi employees work at CGC, just 45 Humboldters who receive full benefits. “We take very good care of our people,” she said.
The planned goat dairy will take eight years to pay for itself, Keehn said, and represents a generous investment by Emmi in Humboldt County.
Another goal is to make the facility a “showplace” where CGC can bring customers.
The new facility will also provide a model for other local goat farms. “This is our background and our commitment to the community that we will do a good job,” she said.
Keehn said she traveled the world to find a good model for a large goat dairy, and found it in Holland, which she said “is a center of excellence for goat dairying.” CGC reps also toured California goat dairies, and found the best one was also modeled after the Holland example.
The goats in Holland aren’t allowed outside, but in a departure, the Arcata Bottom goats will be allowed to graze in the complex's pasture.
The new CGC goats will be raised from kids, then the herd will be gradually expanded.
Williamson then said that the property is zoned Ag General, and that the goat dairy is consistent with allowable uses.
An attendee asked for an overview of the project.
Keehn said CGC will start with 300 goats, eventually expanding to 1,200. Animals at different stages of growth will be kept separated, as will does and bucks.
“It’s very much planned for animal health and welfare,” she said.
Waste management will involve a composting system, with beds changed daily. There’s no ammonia smell,” she said.
She said the goats will have “plenty of room to move around.”
Neighbor Sean Armstrong let loose with a double-barreled rhetorical challenge. First he asked if Keehn understood the effects of e. coli infection. She said yes, and described them in some detail. He also invoked the specter of salmonella.
Armstrong then said the goats will generate seven tons of feces per day, and asked how that would be managed. Williamson said he wasn’t willing to accept Armstrong’s figures without verifying them.
Keehn said the goats she saw in Holland were clean.
“What about my children?” Armstrong asked repeatedly.
Another woman claimed there was no “fecal management plan.”
“You can’t have a dairy today without a manure management plan,” Keehn countered.
“What you’re hearing is a conscientious person telling you she will do things right,” Williamson said. “This is an opportunity for you to be heard and for us to follow up.”
“We don’t care about the gorgeous dairy,” Lee Sobo said. He said concerns remained odor and noise.
“Are you going to jam it down our throat if we don’t want it?” Sobo asked.
“Right now the answer is yes,” Williamson said.
Another woman questioned what kind of clout Keehn really has in influencing Emmi over the plan.
“We had to ask them to do it,” Keehn said. “They do not have a history of going in and micromanaging. They’re counting on us to do a good job.”
She said each doe will have 18 square feet of space.
Keehn said a number of locations were surveyed, but that the nearby Gilardoni site offered a number of advantages. A Ferndale site was too far away, and other Bottoms sites were in the Coastal Zone, complicating installation due to glacial delays in the commission processing applications.
A woman asked whether the main goat house could be located away from the homes along Iverson Avenue. Keehn said plans weren’t final.
Architect Felipe LaPotre said the currently planned site for the main barn has advantages for interaction with other buildings and satisfies various clearance requirements.
Ashley Hanson said putting up buildings on prime pastureland wastes the resource. “They aren’t making more land in this world,” she said.
Keehn said similar facilities in Holland were clean and beautiful.
A man asked whether the company might compensate area residents for impacts to their property. Williamson suggested that the new facility “could have the effect of increasing the value of the property,” and this remark elicited dismissive guffaws.
A resident asked how she would cope with fecal runoff entering the area under her home. “This could make my house flood every year,” the woman said. LaPotre said City officials had required preventive drainage measures.
A woman said that goats aren’t meant to eat grain constantly, and Keehn said they won’t. The goats' diet would include almond hulls, alfalfa, brewers’ grains and okara, which is soy pulp left over from Tofu manufacturing.
“The caretaker’s house is many times farther away than some of the neighbors. Is that so they can sleep at night?” asked a neighbor to appreciative laughter.
“There’s a moderate amount of flexibility,” Keehn said. “As far as the absolute details, we don’t have them all yet.”
“Most everybody’s concern is the manure, the drainage... and our quality of life living here,” said one woman.
She wanted specfics on the manure management, adding, “We have a lot of concerns.”
LaPotre said the new-style septic system planned consists of a shell buried under leach fields, on which engineered soil can be installed and grass can be planted. “The finished product, when you look at it, will be pastureland,” LaPotre said.
“Mary is hiring all the right people to make sure this is her showcase and a quality operation,” Williamson said.
The woman still objected to the facility being installed next to a neighborhood, a school and a church. She asked that it be relocated, triggering applause.
Keehn said industrial land is in short supply, and no other ag site could be found.
“We admire you and think it’s a wonderful project; it’s just in the wrong spot,” said another woman to more applause. “We will fight you all the way.” She ased how long Keehn will remain associated with CGC and able to positively influence the project. “This may be out of your hands in a few years,” the woman said.
A man asked for an example of a similarly-sized goat dairy next to a densely populated area. Keehn said she was not aware of one.
A Q Street resident asked how many trucks would that route, and said her house shakes when CGC-related trucks pass by. Keehn said milk pickups would take place two or three times a week.
LaPotre pointed out that the planned truck route avoids Q Street altogether, using K Street to reach Foster Avenue.
A man asked how loud the goats would be. “No matter what animals we have here, they would still make noise... I won’t tell you that they won’t make noise,” Keehn said.
Keehn said no permits had been applied for, as CGC doesn’t yet own the property. Williamson said only building permits would be required. But a man suggested that a Conditional Use Permit might be necessary.
The man also questioned CGC's science, saying the water table prohibits use of the leach fields CGC plans. He questioned the company’s “due diligence.”
Another woman said that if Caltrans’ Richardson’s Grove project is approved, jumbo STAA trucks might be rumbling through the neighborhood. She said the company might need to change the business model that makes the new facility necessary.
Neighbor Don Nielsen announced that the Bloomfield Neighbors Association had secured the Bloomfield auditorium for Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. to discuss concerns.
Lisa Brown said that the Coastal Commission would approve a principally permitted project in another area of the Arcata Bottom.
Williamson said that might be so, but that the delays would make it impractical. “Whether they have an issue or not, it will take a significant amount of time for them to approve it,” he said.
Brown ticked off further impact concerns, including wetlands, scenic resources, flooding, amounts of water used, chemicals and water treatment.
Brown said it would be “smart” for the company to get a use permit, which would be “respectful of the community.”
Lovelace thanked the company for holding a public meeting. “It’s a great start,” he said. He wondered whether the company would be open to community input on planning.
“We will be as open as we can be,” Keehn said.
A woman lamented that since the project is outside the City of Arcata, there is no government oversight. Wiliamson responded the county has jurisdiction.
Karen Davidson said the Right To Farm Act allows just three years for neighbors to speak up, after which the project can just get “bigger and bigger and bigger.”
A woman asked whether the company’s growth might affect the taste of the cheese. Keehn said the changes will improve control over flavor as the milk will be better quality. “What we’re getting is more local milk instead of having to import milk,” Keehn said.
Williamson said the company would make “extra effort” to detail drainage for Iverson Avenue residents.
A woman said CGC’s present model has worked for 30 years, and wondered “why the haste” in implementing a new plan.
Keehn said she had confidence in the “wonderful plan,” but that CGC does not yet own the property.
Williamson said the company will contact residents based on information on the sign-in sheets, with further information to come.
Following the meeting, neighbors chatted with Keehn and CGC employees folded up the chairs. Many attendees clustered around the cheese table, enjoying Humboldt Fog and other varieties of chevre with artisan bread and grapes.