Stories That Matter: How Journalists Teamed Up to Investigate a Mega-Dairy Affecting Communities 1,500 Miles Apart
Agricultural consolidation is shrinking margins and pushing small farmers out of business all while creating new environmental concerns.
When journalists Debbie Weingarten and Tony Davis met for casual shop talk over drinks in the fall of 2019, they didn’t realize they were taking the first step in an investigative reporting journey that would consume a significant amount of their time and energy for almost the next two years.
Davis is an environmental reporter for the Arizona Daily Star and Weingarten is a freelance writer who specializes in agriculture and rural issues. While chatting during that casual get-together, they realized they were both intrigued — and alarmed — by the massive impact that mega-dairy company Riverview LLP was having on the environment and surrounding communities in both Arizona and Minnesota.
What would have been an ambitious and challenging assignment even under ideal circumstances became much more difficult once a pandemic was added to the mix, but the pair produced an expansive and exhaustively researched 8,000-word feature for High Country News (shorter variations of the story were also published by the Guardian and the Arizona Daily Star).
We talked with Weingarten and Davis about the daunting amount of reporting and research that went into this story — made possible in large part by support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project — and the logistics of finding and interviewing sources in rural areas of two states during a global pandemic.
How long did this process take, from the time you first started working on it until it was published?
Weingarten: It took almost two years for the High Country News version. But part of that was because the pandemic hit and I got COVID, so we kind of put the story down for a while.
Davis: We started pitching it in November or December of 2019. The HCN story was published online in August of this year, and the print version came out in late July. I’ve never spent that much time on any story in my life. And have never done anything as consuming as this story was.
Weingarten: There was a while there where the story was just kind of on hold. We weren’t actively working on it as much when I was sick with COVID. And we weren’t sure what was going to happen with it. There was a period of time when it was like, “Does anybody really care about stories that aren’t COVID?” But thankfully we got back into it.
I wondered how this got on your radar, and it sounds like it fit on the beats you were already tuned into.
Weingarten: We met up for a beer one day to talk about work, and each of us mentioned that we were curious about this dairy. Ultimately, we decided the story would be stronger if we collaborated because we each brought a different piece of it to the table.
Davis: We didn’t have an actual story in mind when we agreed to get together. It was just to meet and talk shop. It grew organically from there.
What was the writing and reporting partnership like? How did you sort out who would do what and how it would blend together?
Davis: Debbie told me about the stuff in Minnesota that she had heard from her contacts and we agreed early on that I should focus mostly on Arizona and she would focus mostly on Minnesota, although she did end up doing some work in Arizona also.
Weingarten: Our interests intersected here. Tony has been reporting on water in the southwest for decades and my background is agriculture. I was initially interested in the story because of its ties to what’s happening in the dairy industry right now, and Tony was interested in the impact of this company on the groundwater.
A lot of people really don’t want to know or think too much about where their food and milk comes from. Was that your first hurdle — educating people are what mega-dairies are and why they should care?
Weingarten: I don’t know if it was so much of a hurdle as just part of the story. I do a lot of reporting on rural issues and areas that often aren’t written about, so there’s often that aspect of the “Why should we care?’ question from editors. I do think Americans are super out of touch with where our food comes from, and corporations take advantage of that ignorance. The dairy crisis that’s sweeping across the country that’s been happening for several years has been pretty overlooked. Most Americans probably don’t know that dairy farms have gone out of business at an alarming rate. So that was part of the story that was important to do, explaining that trend toward factory farms and away from picturesque family farms that we all think of.
Davis: These dairies are all collapsing across the country, but this one is expanding like mad. And causing all these huge environmental impacts.
For this kind of story, it’s critical to find those “real people” sources that put a face to the issue and help readers feel a connection. How did you go about finding sources in rural areas where people are spread out and not necessarily easy to reach?
Davis: It was very difficult for me. A number of people had already moved away and nobody knew how to reach them. People would tell me they knew somebody who had lost their well but they didn’t want to talk about it. The woman that we led the story with, Lauralynn, I just stumbled across her. I went to stay at a Days Inn and she was working at the front desk and we just got to talking.
Weingarten: I traveled to Minnesota right before the pandemic in January of 2020. On my first day in Minnesota, I attended a dairy crisis meeting sponsored by a few farmers’ organizations and it was packed. I think there were 130 dairy farmers, all concerned about the state of the dairy industry. A hot topic of conversation at that meeting was the impact of mega-dairies on small- and medium-sized dairies. So I met a lot of people that way. And then the question of, “Who else should I talk to?” was really valuable when I was doing interviews. I got pointed in a lot of interesting directions. Because this took a long time, and because we were tracking land purchases for so long, we noticed when Riverview started expanding [in Arizona] to a completely different part of the valley. That’s a side of the story we wouldn’t have gotten had we stayed on track with the original publishing timeline.
Davis: We spent a huge amount of time going through records, particularly here in Arizona, because the dairy had bought so much land and we were having trouble sorting all of that out because we were getting contradictory information and inaccurate information from the local assessors, treasurers, and recorders offices in Cochise County, Arizona. That was an ordeal. It sometimes seemed like that was what the story was about. Plus, I had to get well records and go through them to prove what their impact had been. It’s the most records work I’ve ever done. But there was no getting around it; it had to be done. Every fact in there had to be backed up 10 times because we wanted to be absolutely certain.
Weingarten: We also worked with Alex Devoid, the data journalist at the Daily Star, to map where the dried-up wells were in comparison to where Riverview’s land was. There were just so many layers of records. We have this master database of land purchases that we would then have to dissect and figure out how much acreage are we talking about and how much money did they pay and whether it was in cash. Tony is the king of the well records at this point. The story went through fact-checking with flying colors because of his attention to detail to the massive amount of facts in that story.
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Predict: What Happens Next?
“The main thing that’s happened since our story ran is that a group of activists in Cochise County, Arizona, have started gathering petition signatures to get an initiative on the November 2022 ballot in that county to create a state-run active management area in the Sulphur Springs Valley and in the Douglas area that would require stricter groundwater management in those areas than now exists,” says Tony Davis.
He adds: “Next year, it’s likely that yet another effort will be made in the Arizona legislature to allow for some local regulation of groundwater pumping in rural areas of the state, including Cochise County. Given that Republicans are in control of both houses of the legislature, such legislation continues to have little chance of passing, but you never know.”
Read: More on the Water Crisis and the Role of Mega-Dairies
The Arizona Republic shared stories of families struggling to get water when activities by large area farms cause groundwater levels to keep dropping: “In Southeastern Arizona, Farms Drill a Half-Mile Deep While Families Pay the Price,” December 5, 2019
BuzzFeed News reported that federally mandated water cuts mean Arizona will lose 20 percent of its supply from the Colorado River in 2022: “People in Arizona Are About to Face the West’s First Major Water Crisis,” October 27, 2021
In this piece for the Arizona Daily Star, Tony Davis reports on road closures due to fissures caused by groundwater pumping of agricultural operations: “Fissures From Groundwater Pumping Close Two More Cochise County Roads,” August 23, 2021
Meet: About the Author
Bobbi Dempsey is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s, and other outlets. She can be found on Twitter at @bobbidempsey.