The proposed installation of a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Burnett County has raised concerns among local residents about air quality, water pollution and the CAFO’s accountability.
At an October 8 meeting, community members and a panel of experts met in Luck, WI, to discuss their worries and potential actions for the future.
“Our concern is that this is the wrong place for such an operation,” said Rick Painter, a Trade Lake resident who attended the October 8 meeting and a member of the non-profit organization Know CAFOs. “From our perspective, most of Wisconsin is water…The concentration (of manure) in a small area is bound to interrupt the water quality, air quality, etc.”
A preliminary application for the CAFO was filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in April by Jeff Sauer from the company Cumberland LLC in conjunction with Suidae Health and Production, based in Iowa. The 26,000-animal hog farm is planned to be built near the town of Trade Lake, WI and the North Branch of the Trade River.
Economic benefits, environmental risks
In August, a year-long moratorium was passed by the Burnett County Board of Supervisors which prohibited the building of new farms with over 1,000 animals. The County Board formed the Large-Scale Livestock Study Committee to research the issue, and it aims to come to a decision on the matter by spring 2020. In the meantime, local residents have been banding together and voicing their stance on the matter.
“The industrial farms have taken out more farms than anything else I can think of,” said Dan Winterhalter, who also attended the October 8 meeting. “They’ve changed the face of agriculture, the face of ecology, and I support farmers who make the land better as they’re selling me my food. I prefer farmers who keep the water clean.”
CAFOs have economic advantages, and agriculture in the U.S. is trending towards bigger farms that concentrate livestock on a few acres of land. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “new technologies have allowed farmers to reduce costs, which means bigger profits on less land and capital.”
Some local farmers have expressed support for the Suidae CAFO, though they did not attend the forum. The operation could be a source of cheap manure as well as a place to sell feed crops. A representative from the Burnett Dairy Cooperative was invited to the October 8 meeting to say more on the matter, but did not attend.
The CDC warned in 2010 that CAFOs have the potential to pose a variety of problems. Odor from manure is one. Nutrient, pathogen or antibiotic pollution to ground and surface water is another.
“It has been found that states with high concentrations of CAFOs experience on average 20 to 30 serious water quality problems per year as a result of manure management problems,” the report said.
Limited local control
Because the proposed site is near a tributary to the St. Croix River, the Suidae operation has the potential to affect water quality along many miles of river.
Dave Ferris, county conservationist with Burnett County, argues that the Suidae CAFO is not guaranteed to be a problem, so long as the operation manages its manure properly.
“Producers are putting on nutrients already,” Ferris said. “It’s basically chemically produced–you want to call it fossil fuel produced–right now. The concept would be, in this case, to replace that with pork manure.”
Ensuring that a CAFO is managing its manure properly, however, is another matter. Inspection levels of CAFOs at the state level are limited, Ferris said, citing a lack of staffing at the WDNR. At the local level, counties have the option to enact ordinances to control how CAFOs operate, but those ordinances must fall within the very strict parameters of state law.
“It’s very prescriptive of what we can do and can’t do,” said Ferris. If the county wants to make a new ordinance, they must collect enough scientific data to prove without a doubt that there is solid grounds to do so.
Ramona Moody, president of Know CAFOs and a Trade Lake resident, said that she finds the CAFO regulation system in Wisconsin lacking. “Any entity that’s out there in Wisconsin is only as good as the entity is honest,” she said. “Because of the right-to-farm law, if they come in and they’re creating a problem, the neighbors can’t sue them easily.”
According to the 2010 CDC fact sheet, right-to-farm laws were originally created in the 1970s and 80s as a way of protecting small farms from suburban sprawl.
“Right-to-farm laws were created to address conflicts between farmers and non-farming neighbors,” the report said. “They seek to override common laws of nuisance, which forbid people to use their property in ways that are harmful to others, and protect farmers from unreasonable controls on farming.”
Context has changed as farms have grown, however, but state law has been slower to change.
“They may be agriculture,” Moody said, “but they’re industrial, and they should be regulated as such.”
Residents of Trade Lake have worries about the accountability of the Suidae CAFO. Phil Schmidt, who turned up at the October 8 meeting, lives about two miles north of the proposed site. He has had past experiences with a CAFO–he currently rents land to an operation called Four Cubs Farm–but there’s a difference, he said, between a company that’s owned and operated locally and one owned by a large, distant corporation.
“They’ve been members of the community all their life,” Schmidt said, referring to the owners of Four Cubs Farm. “They’re concerned about the community–they don’t want to wreck it.”
The Suidae CAFO, by contrast, is moving to Burnett county from Iowa and will be operated by a large corporation rather than one or a handful of individuals.
“We don’t trust what’s going on,” Schmidt said. “When they go belly-up like they do down in Iowa, they just move out and leave it.”
Committee commences work
The Burnett County Board of Supervisors aims to maintain a neutral position on the matter while they use the Livestock Study Committee to research the possible effects of a CAFO in Trade Lake.
The first meeting for the ad hoc committee was held on August 14 to elect officers and figure out the scope of the project, and the plan moving forward is to examine factors such as existing regulations, zoning, and soil conditions.
“Our goal is not to create fast-track systems for people to come here for this type of ag.-related service, and our goal is to also not to just prevent ag. from being located here in Burnett County,” said Nathan Ehalt, county administrator for Burnett County and chair of the Livestock Study Committee. “We’re not planted one way or another. We’re going to do our due diligence and that’s what our board always does if they start to look at significant decisions like this.”
The committee aims to have a decision ready by early summer 2020. They have requested further information from Jeff Sauer at Cumberland LLC in order to complete the application, but the company has yet to respond.