The Trade River slips for 50 miles through northwest Wisconsin before it spills into the St. Croix. It wanders past forests, small farms, and glacial formations, through sprawling wetlands and scenic lakes, and finally, cuts a course across sandy pine barrens.
The 150-square mile region that the Trade drains is home to lots of deer and ducks, and few people. Someday, there could be far more hogs here than humans. This region is now a target for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) trying to move in and produce hogs in this part of Wisconsin.
CAFOs are unlike traditional farms in almost every way. They are industrial facilities that can house tens of thousands of animals, producing meat — and millions of gallons of manure. Operators typically don’t live on site, and the owners may never even visit the facility. The barns and the hogs that live in them may be owned by different companies.
Typically, several related CAFO facilities will be built near each other, driving out independently-operated farms from the area. There will be sites for young and mature hogs, slaughterhouses and processing plants, and other parts of the production system.
There are already scattered dairy CAFOs in the region, but none that produce hogs. Swine are truly a different animal, generally producing many times more manure than cattle. Swine CAFOs could fundamentally change the region — threatening human health, family farms, water, and communities.
Since the first swine CAFO proposal was announced in the St. Croix watershed almost two years ago, efforts have been underway to protect the region. Neighbors have been organizing and getting educated. County and township boards have enacted moratoriums to give themselves time to study and pass regulations.
Moratoriums still in effect will soon expire, new rules are being considered, and CAFO activity could increase in early 2021.
Leading the swine stampede
The first swine CAFO proposal, from a company called Cumberland LLC, would create nine million gallons of manure each year. It would be in the town of Trade Lake, across the road from the headwaters of the Trade River. The company acknowledges that barns and facilities would need to be carefully situated between wetlands present throughout the property.
Cumberland purchased the property and made their intentions known in early 2019. The company recently submitted plans to deal with its manure to the Department of Natural Resources.
The agency rejected the submission, saying that wetland surveys had not been conducted by a qualified expert, and the application was overall incomplete.
“This is important because it allows DNR reviewers to have access to all submitted documents to make their determinations,” said Jeff Jackson, DNR CAFO specialist for the region. “Cumberland LLC will have to resubmit an updated engineering design plan, along with the remaining final application requirements before DNR will begin the review process.”
But the recent submissions bring to light more about what Cumberland proposes to do with its waste. Cumberland would be a “farrowing facility,” focused on breeding and raising hogs, as opposed to “finishing” the hogs — getting them to the right size for slaughter.
The operation would house up to 26,000 hogs at a time — and produce enough manure each year to fill 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The waste can contain large amounts of antibiotics and other drugs given to the livestock, as well as ammonia, phosphorus, and nitrogen.
The manure would be stored in huge reservoirs under each of the three planned barns, letting hog waste drop directly through a slatted floor into the holding tanks. Those reservoirs would be able to hold 14 million gallons — more than a year’s worth of manure.
Eventually, the waste would be trucked into nearby fields and spread out as fertilizer. With such large amounts being applied to relatively small areas, runoff is a concern. Spreading manure from a dairy CAFO in St. Croix County a year ago led to runoff that killed fish in a nearby creek.
New rules for new industry
Cumberland’s CAFO would be located on the southern edge of Burnett County. After the company made its proposal public last year, the county board of supervisors put in place a one-year moratorium in July 2019 and created an ad-hoc Large Scale Livestock Study Committee.
This summer, the moratorium was extended for another six months to let the committee complete its work. Next week, the group will presents its findings and recommendations to the board of supervisors.
CAFO opponents are disappointed by the proposed regulations discussed at the last committee meeting. They say the most troubling aspect of the recommendations is it would essentially allow unlimited CAFOs anywhere zoned for what’s called “Exclusive Agriculture.” Current county zoning includes Cumberland’s site in this category.
According to the local anti-CAFO group Know CAFOs, these areas where CAFOs would be allowed were repeatedly referred to as “sacrifice zones” by members of the committee during their discussions. They point to a conversation at Nov. 18’s meeting between Larry Konopacki, an outside attorney consulting for the committee, and Burnett County administrator Nate Ehalt, who serves as chairman of the group.
Konopacki: “I have not heard any plan deviation of creating sacrifice zones and limited animal units number zones of different types of agricultural zoning District. Is that still correct?”
Ehalt: “Yes, that is correct.”
In these zones, there would be no limits on the number of animals that can be housed at a facility. CAFOs would still have to apply for a conditional use permit from the county, but the state of Wisconsin does not give local governments much power to enact strict conditions.
“Our concerns stem from lack of specific testing and lack of in-depth research,” Know CAFOs team told St. Croix 360. “There was no health-based discussions or requirements like test wells around sites and spread fields; surface testing sites for windblown biohazards; no liability insurance bonding; no disaster recovery plans; lack of community oversight committee funding; lack of a cost benefit analysis showing losses to tourism and tax base and gains for agriculture.”
They also say the committee failed to recommend an operational ordinance that would dictate how CAFOs do business. Such rules might require operators to provide a “damage deposit” to cover clean-up costs, or mandate steps to protect our groundwater.
The committee’s documents say manure storage is only required to be sufficient for 180 days. The members didn’t think six months storage is enough to ensure operators don’t try spreading manure on frozen ground, “however they did not evaluate enough information to provide a specific number,” their proposal says.
Know CAFOs asks concerned Burnett County citizens to contact their county supervisor and town board members to share their views. Contact information is provided here.
The Town of Trade Lake, where Cumberland’s operation would be located, recently renewed its own moratorium on CAFOs for another year, by unanimous vote. They also created an committee to review the town’s current CAFO ordinance in light of new information.
Meanwhile, the Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network is organizing an effort across Wisconsin to enact a statewide moratorium on CAFOs. The group is seeking no new or expanded operations until the DNR has the authority to enforce water quality protections, groundwater protection policies are passed, local elected officials have more control to protect lakes, rivers, and groundwater, and all existing CAFOs are brought up to compliance.
“Before Wisconsin allows new construction or expansions of CAFO facilities, the state must provide a solution for our existing manure overload problem,” the group says.
At the national level, Senator Cory Booker introduced legislation in January that would enact a moratorium on CAFOs across the country and help transition the agriculture industry to more sustainable practices. Sens. Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren signed on as cosponsors. The legislation has not yet received a hearing.
The Burnett County Board of Supervisors will hear the Large Livestock Committee’s recommendations next Thursday, Dec. 17 from 9:30 a.m. to noon, at the government center in Siren, Wis.
Zoom video conference
Dial by phone:1 312 626 6799
Meeting ID: 997 6065 9068
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