Polk County citizens say proposed factory farm regulations favor industrial agriculture

Community members call on officials to reject ordinances they say aren’t strong enough to protect people, land, and water.

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Crossing the St. Croix River and entering Polk County, Wisconsin on Highway 8. (Photo by Royalbroil via Wikipedia)

Efforts to protect land, water, and quality of life in northwest Wisconsin communities from large-scale livestock facilities are coming to a critical point after months of study and discussion. Such Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have caused serious pollution and accelerated the disappearance of family farms across the Midwest.

There is intense interest by industrial agriculture in expanding CAFOs from Iowa, where they are prevalent, into parts of the St. Croix River watershed.

Local governments along the river, including counties and rural townships, have been working on the issue as temporary moratoriums block new applications to give officials time to develop rules and regulations.

One such effort has been a study and suggested ordinance proposed in Polk County, which contains St. Croix River tributaries including the Apple, Trade, and Willow Rivers. The county halted any new applications for CAFOs last fall as it studied the issue and worked on regulations.

The ordinance is expected to be voted on by a key committee on July 8.

‘Rolls out the red carpet’

Environmental advocates in the region say the proposed ordinance was crafted by two pro-CAFO county commissioners, and it “rolls out the red carpet for hog factory farm developers.” They are urging their fellow citizens to speak up in opposition.

Criticisms of the ordinance include the fact it would allow hog barns and manure lagoons 200 feet from neighbors, and a quarter-mile from lakes and rivers. There are few other restrictions on operations.

Polk County commissioners heard some feedback to the proposal, and a draft report on the issue by the county’s Environmental Services Committee, at its June 16 meeting.

“Huge hog factories have serious detrimental effects on public health and land,” Laketown resident Vicki Breault told the board. “Once the damage is done, it is difficult if not impossible to reverse.”

Laketown is located north of St. Croix Falls, and it lives up to its name with numerous bodies of water. It is also a key area targeted by CAFO developers, just south of the Burnett County line, where a hog farm that would house up to 26,000 swine has already been proposed.

Breault and other speakers also called a report on the issue conducted by the county’s Environmental Services Committee, which commissioner Brad Olson chairs, inadequate. The report does not include recommendations for ordinances, existing laws and regulations, or many other key pieces of information.

“This report falls far short of reasonable expectation for a six month long study of one of the most controversial and divisive issues this county has faced for decades,” said another speaker, Thomas Scott.

Limited limitations

Map by Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360

Local communities can only regulate CAFOs, and are prohibited by Wisconsin law from banning them altogether. In addition, “right-to-farm” laws limit legal opposition from neighbors. But government units like Polk County can enact ordinances that try to reduce the impact of such facilities.

The two townships at the center of CAFO interest in Polk County are Laketown and Eureka, in the far northwest of the county. Eureka Township adjoins the St. Croix River from about Wolf Creek south to St. Croix Falls.

Farming has been part of the region for centuries, but the livestock industry is rapidly moving toward consolidation, cutting connections to communities and the land, and significantly increasing the risk of pollution. Larger and larger facilities can create greater efficiency and profits, but it also means a lot of manure is located in small areas.

Both townships recently enacted their own CAFO moratoriums, and then passed their own ordinances. Citizens say there needs to be strong county-wide regulation, and enforcement of the rules, if any CAFOs begin operating.

“Although animal manure is an invaluable fertilizer, waste quantities of the magnitude produced by CAFO operations represent a public a health and ecological hazard through the degradation of surface and ground water resources,” Eureka Township’s new ordinance reads.

The town also pointed to the application for a CAFO in neighboring Burnett County, which predicts the operation would produce more than 9 million gallons of manure each year, and spread it all on local farm fields.

Bayfield County in northern Wisconsin enacted a strict ordinance in 2016, and a proposed large-scale livestock facility was halted. That ordinance included requiring CAFOs to have the capacity to store manure for about 18 months rather than the state requirement of six months of manure storage (which would allow for spreading it only when the ground is able to absorb the manure).

Speak up

Public input on Polk County’s proposed ordinance is being accepted in a few ways during the next week. Comments from Polk County citizens are most valuable. Here is a list of ways to weigh in, from advocate Lisa Doerr:

  • Today – Use your phone to record a video message (3-minute limit). Start with your name and town. Then tell them we don’t want the Olson/Nelson ordinance. Email it by July 6 to jason.kjeseth@co.polk.wi.us
  • July 1 – Record a video comment at County Government Center between 2 and 8 p.m.
  • July 8 – Testify to the Environment Services Committee at County Government Center at 10 a.m.

More information


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One response to “Polk County citizens say proposed factory farm regulations favor industrial agriculture”

  1. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Wow, this is so informative, thank you Greg!! There are so few clean rivers left in the US. I want to do what I can to protect the St. Croix River basin.

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Polk County citizens say proposed factory farm regulations favor industrial agriculture