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TROUBLE BREWING

THE TUCKER FAMILY SAYS HAY GROWN BY ANHEUSER-BUSCH GAVE ITS DAIRY COWS A ROYAL HANGOVER.

The Anheuser-Busch brewery rises from the agricultural flatlands north of Fort Collins like a beer lover's Magic Kingdom. Rows of flowers line the sidewalks and the road leading to the main entrance, and visitors are invited by sunny collegiate greeters to take the brewery tour, a highlight of which is "Clydesdale Hamlet," where Clay, a retired but still-talented beerwagon hauler, puts on a one-horse show. After being led through an industrial facility larger than most of the towns in Larimer County, visitors can line up at the taps in the hospitality room for the tour's crowning moment: a free sample of Budweiser, the best-selling beer in America.

Fifteen miles to the east, Chuck Tucker sits in his pickup near a corral that holds his family's dairy cows. There are no flowers lining the dirt lane to the Tucker Dairy--and no warm feelings here for Anheuser-Busch, a corporate giant that Tucker, his father and brother blame for the near destruction of their family business.

The problem, say the Tuckers, is hay, irrigated with effluent from the huge brewery and sold to ranchers and dairymen by an Anheuser-Busch subsidiary. That hay was tainted, the family claims in a lawsuit that went to trial Monday in Weld County District Court. As a result, they say, their dairy herd and their livelihood were nearly ruined.

The Tuckers aren't the first people in Weld County to raise questions about hay grown by Anheuser-Busch. The company settled a similar lawsuit with Colorado State University less than six months before the Tuckers took the beermaker to court in 1991. But Chuck Tucker says Anheuser-Busch has refused to accept responsibility for the harm done to his cows or to adequately compensate the family for its losses. (A spokesman for Anheuser-Busch denies the Tuckers' allegations but says the company won't comment specifically on the case prior to trial.)

Recalling his family's two-year struggle to discover the cause of its herd's declining health and diminishing milk production, Chuck Tucker says the low point arrived one October night in 1990. It was the end of another discouraging day. Cows that had been producing nearly 100 pounds of milk per day were down to thirty. Calves had been born with deformities and other problems; some had died. Chuck's father, Charlie Tucker, had built the business from a bone-dry scrap of ground 43 years earlier to a thriving concern that supported three households and received awards for the consistent quality of its milk. But by that October day the family members were broke, confused and at each other's throats. Charlie's life savings of $250,000 had been lost in the dairy's unexplained downward spiral. To stay afloat, the family needed a bank loan of $50,000.

"We're sitting there and Dad says to me, `Should we sell, should we quit?'" recalls Tucker, a sturdy-looking man of 45. "I said we can't quit. Dad said, `Where would I go?'" Chuck Tucker's voice breaks and he turns to watch the herd feeding at the corral fence.

At 69, Charlie Tucker has been a dairy farmer all his life. For 32 years, his family owned and ran the Yellow Top Dairy in Englewood. In 1951, Charlie struck out on his own, buying 35 cows and sixty acres near Wellington, north of Fort Collins. For a year he worked two jobs, struggling to get his dairy going between shifts at a cement plant in Laporte, where he toted 100-pound bags of mix. Because his land had no well or creek, he had to haul water to the herd in 55-gallon drums.

Over time things improved and the dairy grew, though it remained small enough for Charlie to keep his hands on the reins and the milk quality up. In 1966, he and his family suffered a blow when nearby I-25 was expanded and the highway department seized a crucial portion of their property.

Forced to move to save his business, Charlie bought 160 acres near Pierce, north of Greeley off Highway 85. Just as he had overcome the lack of water at his first location, Tucker worked past the debt incurred by the move, steadily building his herd, acquiring modern equipment and hiring four full-time workers to help him farm the acreage and run the dairy. Eventually he was joined in the business by his two sons, Iven and Chuck. "If you've got a goal, you just keep heading toward it," Charlie says.

Charlie "knows the history of every cow" in the family's 206-head milking herd, adds Chuck. "He can put a hand on the ribs of a cow--`bumping her,' he calls it--and tell you how far along she is" in pregnancy. "The cows is his life."

Trouble found Charlie Tucker and his cows in 1988.

It takes a lot of water to make beer, and not all of it goes into bottles and cans. When Anheuser-Busch opened its Fort Collins brewery in 1988, company officials projected the plant would eventually discharge up to 3.5 million gallons of waste- water per day, an amount of effluent beyond the capacity of Fort Collins's municipal water-treatment facility. To bring the plant on-line, Anheuser-Busch turned to a unique system of disposal: piping the effluent four miles away to Weld County, where it would be sprayed onto cropland by pivot irrigation rigs.

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