A group of about 200 people rallied Tuesday evening at the Polk County Government Center in Balsam Lake, Wis., calling on the board of supervisors to take stronger action to protect the area from huge hog facilities.
Organized as a “bucket brigade,” participants were asked to bring a bucket filled with objects that represented their dreams for the county. That included clean well water, hiking boots, food, flowers, and more.
In an hour of music and speeches, the crowd spoke up for a way of life threatened by the possibility of new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). One Iowa company has applied to open a 26,000-hog facility just across the county line in Burnett County, while more operations are expected to seek permits if the first one is approved.
The protest event came before the supervisors’ monthly meeting, and speakers promised to be there every month until the supervisors act.
“They cannot get rid of us just because they vote to do nothing,” said Mike Miles, a farmer from Luck. “We’re going to talk them out of it, we’re going to be here every month.”
Miles characterized the county’s options as giving up, and accepting the prospect that parts of the area will be seriously degraded by CAFOs.
“They think, ‘there’s so few people here, it’s okay if it gets stunk up,'” he said.
While the only official current CAFO proposal is located in Burnett County, that facility would produce about 225,000 shoats (baby hogs) each year. All those hogs would have to be raised to market weight elsewhere — but nearby. Polk County residents have reported being approached by CAFO developers about selling land for finishing facilities.
The entire area targeted by the CAFO companies drains toward the St. Croix River through the Trade and Wood Rivers.
In 2019, the Polk County board enacted a one-year moratorium on any CAFO applications while it conducted research and considered regulations.
Then, in February of this year, the board voted 9-4 to halt efforts to develop an ordinance that would restrict how CAFOs could operate in the county, because board chair Chris Nelson said “there is no clear, practical path forward at this time.”
That leaves large swaths of the county entirely unprotected.
The event was organized by members of the Polk-Burnett Wisconsin Farmers Union. Chapter members Emmalyn Kayser, co-owner of Foxtail Farm near Osceola, spoke about growing up in Iowa — which is now almost unrecognizable because of CAFOs.
“We couldn’t swim in the Cedar River by the time I was 10,” she said. “And there were no more frogs.”
In large part because of the environmental degradation, Kayser moved to Wisconsin. Now, Iowa companies are trying to expand their area of operation. Kayser said she’s committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.
“I can’t watch my new home be destroyed like my former home,” Kayser said.
The special guest for the night was Mary Dougherty, a Bayfield County supervisor who helped lead the successful effort to reject a planned CAFO in the area draining toward Lake Superior. She offered encouragement and advice for following in her community’s lead.
She said everyone needs to dig in and take care of where they live, and shared a quote from writer Terry Tempest Williams.
“It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community?
“It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you’re not going to go away. It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in ‘casserole diplomacy’ by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.”– Terry Tempest Williams
She said the operations ordinance was critical, dictating what a CAFO can and cannot do. The other key regulation was prohibiting aerial manure spraying. To get rid of manure cheaply, CAFO operators will mix manure with irrigation water and spray it over fields.
Prohibiting the practice prevents air and water pollution, and gives CAFO operators “pause,” she said.
Contrary to a common belief, Dougherty said it is possible for counties to legally regulate CAFOs. While the Wisconsin state legislature has limited local control of the facilities, Bayfield, Douglas, and Ashland Counties all passed the similar strong ordinance without legal challenges — and without CAFOs setting up shop.
When the rally was done, several residents went inside to speak directly to the board during an open comment period. Others stayed on the lawn, eating ice cream, talking about the drought, and watching kids play.