Idea for a Desert Dairy Utopia Envisions King of Cow Towns

Times Staff Writer

The West is littered with cow towns that came and went, but none to rival the one planned by William Buck Johns and Henry Orlosky.

Amid the tumbleweeds and dust devils of Harper Dry Lake, a scorched, wind-blasted depression in the high desert just north of Barstow, the two men -- visionaries maybe, or perhaps just energy developers on the make -- see a cow utopia.

They want to build the dairy equivalent of a shining city on a hill: the perfect community where farmers and cattle live together in harmony with the environment while turning cow patties into clean, renewable energy for the Los Angeles region.


“We’re talking cow condos, a complete gated community, sharing all sorts of services. It will be good for dairymen and a good way to dispose of animal waste. We’re doing a great service,” Orlosky said.

Not everyone is convinced.

Some dairymen question the feasibility of the proposal. Some environmentalists fear the plan cannot be as clean as Johns and Orlosky insist.

“That type of massive dairy operation comes with massive environmental effects. I’m not sure how excited the public is going to be on a threatened desert wetland when you have tens of thousands of dairy cows and the associated stench and flies,” said Daniel Patterson, biologist for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

Even supporters concede that the idea of putting 90,000 Holsteins in the midst of the Mojave Desert is, at minimum, unusual. Nevertheless, the project is being propelled by two potent political currents: the need to reduce agricultural pollution and the need to diversify and expand California’s sources of electricity.

“On the surface it seems crazy, but we have to start thinking outside the box,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy), who chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

The plan calls for building from scratch 30 dairy farms with 3,000 cows each on a 1,920-acre former alfalfa field off California 58 near Hinkley.

Using methane from manure as fuel, a power plant would generate 50 megawatts of electricity. The plant would be part of a giant energy complex -- Harper Lake Energy Park -- that also would include a 550-acre solar power station to be built in conjunction with Solargenix Energy LLC and a pair of 400-megawatt natural gas-fired turbines. Estimated cost for the entire project: $1 billion.

Under a new state law, California is supposed to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2017. Power demand statewide is growing by 2% annually, and the state Energy Commission recently granted dairy farmers $8 million to develop alternative sources.

So far, the only energy generated by the project comes from its backers. William Buck Johns, 62, grew up in Arkansas, became an Eagle Scout and goes to church every Sunday. He greets everyone with a pat on the back, a disarming drawl and a punchy one-liner.

Fear of Sputnik prompted Johns’ mother to prod him to study engineering, “but as soon as I graduated I gave her my engineering degree, and I went back to what I love: sales,” he said.

He came to California in the 1970s, moved to Newport Beach, built a small home air-conditioning business into a multimillion-dollar success and has been on a roll ever since. His money has helped fuel several GOP political campaigns, and he is on a first-name basis with Republican leaders across the state. Those connections helped him overcome obstacles to building a major power plant in Victorville.

“Politics are the center of the universe. You’ve got to love it,” Johns chuckles amid a crowd of movers and shakers on a blustery spring morning in the desert.

Orlosky, 58, is his counterpoint. Tall and thoughtful, Orlosky is trained as a pilot and engineer, which taught him to act with careful calculation. He lives in Sacramento, but formed a company in Irvine that makes medical tools. He possesses several patents. Orlosky owns the land for the energy park and is one the biggest holders of water rights in the desert.

The two plan to seek permits from San Bernardino County for the dairy in July. With strong backing from lawmakers and the dairy industry, the first of the cows could begin arriving in the high desert by early next year.

Their lives would differ from those of bovines elsewhere in several key respects. Unlike other dairies, these would be designed from the ground up to minimize environmental impacts.

The dairies would include paved floors and covered stalls, complete with solar panels on the roofs. A plumbing system would continually flush each dairy like a giant toilet. Waste -- a cow can produce 100 pounds of excrement a day -- would be piped to a digester that would use bacteria to extract methane, which would generate enough power to run the cow complex, with some probably left over for sale to the electricity grid serving Southern California, Orlosky said.

For the projected 600 farmers and their families, there would be a park, tennis courts and swimming pool as well as houses. There would be a central sewage system, storm drains, a water delivery system, a veterinary center, paved roads, a feed store and a fire station.

Digesters are not new. They are widely used on farms in Europe to reduce the amount of manure from dairies. In the United States, a farm in Minnesota generates enough electricity from livestock gas to power its operation and 78 neighboring homes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But using digesters on such a large scale in such a remote area would be new. And that is not the only technical problem the project would face. Tons of feed would have to be hauled up to the desert, while milk would have to be exported to distant markets, potentially boosting production costs for dairies.

Sybrand Vander Dussen, a Chino dairy farmer, is one of many skeptics. The farm might be great for cows, he said, but dairymen will not be willing to live in the harsh desert climate, and hired hands typically do not manage dairy farms effectively.

“It’s a no-man’s land, which makes sense for cows but not owners. It’s pie in the sky. I don’t think it will work,” he said.

Still, the state’s dairies face so many other problems that the time for pie in the sky may have come.

In the San Joaquin Valley, emissions from livestock waste are emerging as one of the leading causes of air pollution in one of the smoggiest places in the nation. In the Chino Valley, home to the nation’s largest concentration of dairy cows, emissions from dairy farms contribute to air pollution in Riverside and are blamed for contaminating water supplies downstream in Orange County.

Moving dairies to a remote site may be the best hope for keeping California’s $4-billion dairy industry from fleeing to greener pastures in Idaho, New Mexico and Texas, said Bob Feenstra, executive director of the Milk Producers Council, an industry trade group.

Or, as Assemblywoman Matthews put it: “We have to find ways to protect our dairy heritage, and we want dairies to prosper and remain in California ... just finding a place of their own for the cows is not a bad idea.”