Lobbyists ask state agency to review new ordinances targeting large-scale operations.
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Hog CAFO in North Carolina. (Photo by Emily Sutton, Waterkeeper Alliance, via Flickr)

Two statewide Wisconsin dairy lobbying groups, joined by a pair of farmers from Polk and Burnett County, have asked the state Department of Agriculture and Trade Policy to review new ordinances recently passed in northwestern Wisconsin. As previously reported on St. Croix 360, in recent months a coalition of rural towns has worked to pass similar ordinances to prevent pollution from proposed Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

This week, the Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative wrote to state regulators asking for an assessment of whether the ordinances are consistent with state law. Their argument is essentially that the towns don’t have legal authority to say how large-scale livestock facilities can operate.

“The towns assert to rely on a town’s general police power, a town’s ability to regulate nuisances and a local municipality’s jurisdiction to prescribe livestock regulations, even though no evidence has been provided that either the Department of Natural Resources or DATCP have reviewed and approved any ordinance as mandated in the statute,” wrote Chad Zuleger, a lobbyist for the industry groups.

The letter (PDF) urges the agency to act, noting that three of the towns have already passed their version of a model ordinance developed in partnership, and the other three may soon join them.

Local advocates who have supported the town efforts said the ordinances were carefully crafted and within their authority. Complicated legal questions abound, but simply put, the Wisconsin legislature has given state agencies a lot of power over CAFOs, but still allows local governments to regulate operations as long as their policies are based in fact and science.

Andy Marshall, an attorney and local property-owner who has been deeply involved in the ordinance effort, said he is confident the ordinances will stand up to challenges.

“Trade Lake has done a ton of work researching and drafting not only its CAFO Operations Ordinance but also the CAFO Study Committee Report — which is about 130 pages long and includes over 200 citations to scientific and industry research articles,” Marshall said. “The report is incorporated into the ordinance by reference and provides scientifically based findings that support the ordinance.”

He also questioned how a private organization could request the government spend taxpayer dollars and resources to conduct such a review. One of the towns referenced, Trade Lake, hasn’t even implemented the policy yet as it works to finish the application forms that will be required.

“[The] request is, at the very least, premature,” he said.

No matter what, Marshall says the ordinances are necessary to ensure new CAFOs don’t harm health, pollute lakes, rivers, and groundwater, or destroy property values.

“Wisconsin regulations partially address the millions of gallons of feces, urine and process water these factories produce but are poorly enforced,” Marshall said. “Health issues, air pollution, carcass disposal, biosecurity, fire safety and road damage are just some of the other issues our local ordinances address.”

Polk County farmer and CAFO opponent Lisa Doerr said the operations ordinances are intended to prevent the kinds of problems recently seen around Wisconsin. For example, it regulates the disposal of dead animals.

“Our town ordinances only apply to giant animal factories like the one in Jefferson [County] that had to kill 2.7 million chickens,” Doerr said. “Town people there had no idea the factory would be composting birds infected with highly infectious avian [flu] at the end of a residential driveway. A Barron County Jennie-O turkey plant just announced having to kill nearly 50,000 birds. We don’t know where those carcasses will go. Under our ordinances the factories are required to submit biosecurity, depopulation and disposal plans.”

The only formal CAFO proposal in the region currently is the Cumberland LLC plan for a facility in Trade Lake that would house up to 26,000 hogs and produce 9 million gallons of waste each year. The facility would be used for breeding swine, and would almost certainly require nearby facilities to finish the hogs to market weight, and it’s likely other related operations would follow.

Residents of the area report that interest from companies like Cumberland, which is owned by Iowans, is high.

“We know that the large livestock industry wants in to northwestern Wisconsin,” Doerr said. “They have approached many land owners to buy land. They have spent thousands on Madison lawyers and lobbyists. They want our land, air and water.”

For the past several years, local governments aware of this possibility have instituted moratoriums and worked to pass new protections. The goal has been to clearly communicate to companies behind any new CAFO proposal what the community expects.

“If corporate farming interests want to do business in our back yards and take advantage of our local resources, then it is entirely appropriate that our local ordinances require these industrial agricultural operations show how they will protect our lakes, wells and farms from contaminants and pathogens,” said Marshall.

The letter from the agriculture groups say the new ordinances would add fees and require additional reporting, as well as reducing the number of animal allowed and limiting the hours of operation. The groups also say the ordinances were developed and passed without state review and approval.

CAFO critics say state review of the new ordinances is not required because the policies were developed under a separate law from the state’s livestock facility siting law.

“[O]ur towns have developed Operations ordinances that are built on Wis. Statute 92.15,” Doerr said. “Under that law, towns are not required to have an ordinance reviewed or authorized. We’ve written the strongest legal protection possible.”

Under the model ordinance developed by the town consortium, large livestock facilities could need to apply for a permit, which might include conditions to protect human and animal health, “safety, and general welfare, prevent pollution and the creation of private nuisances and public nuisances, and preserve the quality of life, environment, and existing small-scale livestock and other agricultural operations.”

There are only a few CAFOs currently in the St. Croix River watershed. A dairy operation in the Willow River watershed, owned by out-of-state individuals, has caused manure runoff that killed fish in a nearby trout stream, and was possibly linked to extremely elevated levels of harmful nitrates in a nearby well. Another large dairy near Shell Lake has had problems in the past, although the family who owns it has taken significant steps to prevent pollution recently.

Marshall pointed out that the lobbying groups’ objections to the new ordinances don’t concern the many existing small- and medium-sized farms in the region. The new requirements would only apply to new proposals and expansions that surpass the CAFO cutoff.

“So it is interests outside of Trade Lake, who want to take advantage of our resources and risk damage to our health, air, and water, who now seem desperate to challenge the work being done by Trade Lake and other local communities,” Marshall said.

In dairy risk management, one size does not fit all. Throughout recent history, a number of dairy-related risk management programs, some available through private crop insurance providers and others available through the Farm Service Agency (FSA), have been designed to fill gaps in protection against market risk and uncertainty.

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