“I tell people that I always know I’m in Mesquite because of the smell,” says Arturo Uribe, executive director of the Mesquite Community Action Committee. The odor, he and other Mesquite residents say, comes from the roughly 30,000 cows housed in Dairy Row, a stretch of about a dozen dairies paralleling I-10 southeast of Las Cruces.

That many cows in that small an area also produce huge numbers of flies, many of which, Uribe says, end up in Mesquite, making life in the tiny town of 1,100 more and more unbearable. Town residents are paying the price, they say, for New Mexico to have modern, industrial dairies and for the rest of us to have fresh milk in our refrigerators. Uribe and about 20 other residents are bringing a nuisance lawsuit against seven dairies in Dairy Row, seeking unspecified monetary damages. A small town is taking on Big Dairy.

Roberto Nava, whose long white hair and beard make him look more like a mountain man than the retired educator he is, has lived in Mesquite off and on his whole life. “I open my door [in the morning],” he says, “and if it smells like cow shit, I close it. If it doesn’t, I open it.”

Roberto Nava and Arturo Uribe are Mesquite residents suing Big Dairy.
Roberto Nava and Arturo Uribe are Mesquite residents suing Big Dairy. | Sorrentino

Marty Nieto, another lifelong resident, took a break one afternoon from yard work to talk about the lawsuit filed in October 2012 in Las Cruces District Court. Although he said the flies weren't particularly bad that day, he swatted at them continually as he spoke. "Right now, you wouldn't be able to have a cookout or just hang out outside because the flies are just so annoying," he says. "No way we could enjoy ourselves out here. It's horrendous."

Dairy co-op and lobbying websites depict their operations with lovely photographs of black and white Holstein cows standing in lush, green pastures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, cows in almost all dairies are in CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—spending the majority of their days in large corrals, standing in mud and manure. An adult dairy cow produces 120 to 150 pounds of manure a day, so cows in Dairy Row are collectively dumping around 2,000 tons of it every 24 hours. Cows in the seven dairies being sued account for about half of that. Most manure is expelled in the corrals where it's compacted by the cows, and eventually used as fertilizer on the dairy or local farms.

Uribe is a solidly built 34-year-old whose straightforward manner can, at first, come off as brusque. But it's really an intensity that comes from fighting for his town. He's spent most of his life in Mesquite and knows the town's residents, and dairy owners, well. In fact, his sister is married to the son of a dairy owner. He knows that the dairies are an important part of the community, providing jobs in an area that's starved for them. "It wasn't an easy thing to all of a sudden sue them," he says. "We'd speak with [dairy owners]…they did their best to be a good neighbor, but nothing changed."

Four years ago, he was interviewed for an NPR story about New Mexico's dairies and mentioned the problem with flies. That caught the attention of Richard Middleton, whose law firm specializes in agricultural nuisance lawsuits. Middleton and some of his staff came in from Savannah, Ga., and met with Uribe, Nava and other residents. Nava says, "They asked us, 'Does it smell?' Yes. 'Is there an abundance of flies?' Yes. 'That's all we need to know.'"

Flies land in droves on every surface in Mesquite.
Flies land in droves on every surface in Mesquite. | Sorrentino

Not surprisingly, the dairy owners deny dairies are responsible for the flies and odors.

Pete Domenici Jr., a well-known Albuquerque attorney who has been involved with lawsuits about environmental issues and dairies for about 20 years, is defending the dairies.

"There has been very little effort by the plaintiffs to identify why they think the dairies are the source of flies or odors," he tells SFR. "Prevailing wind direction is from west to east, all of the plaintiffs are to the west…an indication that the odors wouldn't travel that far or that the dairies would be a source. They're also quite a distance from the dairies in terms of patterns of fly behavior, and there are many other sources closer. Dairies don't feel they're responsible for flies or odors."

Domenici didn't answer a follow-up question about what the "other sources" might be.

Only one dairy farmer was willing to speak about the lawsuit and did so on the condition of anonymity; he's not one of the farmers being sued.

"Flies gather in the pine trees that are around houses," he says. "Many people have horses in their yards and don't clean up after them." There aren't, however, any horse herds in Mesquite. He added that the lawsuit, if successful, would hurt dairies. "It's been tough for everybody," he says, "and the lawsuit could be the tipping point; dairies may have to leave."

That's something that Nava would welcome. In addition to the flies and odor, water pollution from tons of manure is also a concern, and the state has been moving slow on updating regulations to curb contamination.

"We thought initially…that [dairies] were going to relocate and that's what we wanted," he says. "We were kind of disappointed that they [might] just pay up and continue as usual." If they did relocate, they'd take jobs with them, but Uribe thinks other industries would come in.

"We have more of an opportunity to bring in better paying jobs because of the freeway than having dairies here," he says, noting railroad access and warehouses are already plentiful. Still, growth in other industries is uncertain and probably years away.

The opposing sides are scheduled to meet in mediation on Dec. 11. "If successful, it could avoid a trial," says Middleton, the residents' attorney, "But we can walk away if there's not sufficient money offered." He declined to offer a figure that he was looking for, but added, "I've learned over the years that you have to hit [dairies] in the pocketbook." Middleton's been doing this kind of work since 1999 and says he's seen some dairies clean up their operations while others have folded or moved.

It's clear that, whatever the outcome, Uribe's not going anywhere. "I'm real proud I get to live in my grandparents' house," he says. "I feel my roots, my sense of place. [Mesquite was] established in 1882. The families have been here much longer than the dairies." He realizes that the dairies may not be going anywhere either and that they're also part of the community. After dinner in a small roadside restaurant in La Mesa, he got a little philosophical. "We have to figure out a way to live together," he says. "After the lawsuit, the lawyers are all gonna leave and we'll all still be here."

This article was reported in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.