The company that has proposed the first large-scale hog production facility in northern Wisconsin has again failed to file a complete application. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources notified Cumberland LLC this week that, because the company hasn’t documented it has enough land available to spread the nine million gallons of manure and other waste it will produce each year, a permit application filed three months ago has been denied.
Cumberland is seeking to operate a 26,000-hog facility in Burnett County, near the Trade and Wood Rivers, tributaries of the St. Croix. In addition to pork, it would produce a lot of manure, which would be spread on farm fields as fertilizer.
Cumberland owns little land itself, primarily the 40-acre parcel where the three barns, manure pits, and other facilities would be constructed. Like many such operations, it plans to sign leases with other farmers to use their fields, potentially providing fertilizer for their crops. Finding enough fields is proving difficult.
Before the rejection, Cumberland told the DNR for the first time that it is planning to spread about half its waste on the other side of the St. Croix River, in Minnesota. But, the company provided none of the required information about where, or whether it had the necessary legal agreements with property owners.
After filing a permit application in 2021 that was ultimately rejected because it was incomplete, the company submitted its second application on Dec. 30, 2022. Shortly after that, the DNR said it had reviewed the materials and it appeared complete, clearing the way for agency staff to begin reviewing it.
But by February 10, the DNR had come up with several questions, and asked Cumberland to clarify. Information appeared incomplete or incorrect regarding numerous fields the company indicated it would use for spreading. DNR specialist Falon French informed the company it needed to provide signed agreements with landowners of all the fields the company intends to use for manure disposal.
Cumberland was given a month to provide the signed land agreements, with the DNR saying the timeline was necessary to keep the application review moving.
About six weeks later, on March 21, the DNR’s Aaron O’Rourke confirmed he had recently spoken with a consultant working for Cumberland, who told him the company was now going to haul manure to Minnesota. O’Rourke warned such major changes to the application could cause it to be rejected and told the company it needed to provide details about these new plans within three days.
That did not happen. Instead, Cumberland’s consultant wrote last Friday, essentially reiterating what he had told O’Rourke on the phone.
“Cumberland LLC will be planning on hauling manure out of state to Minnesota for the volume not spread in Wisconsin,” Sam Guyer, of Greener Acres Agronomy, wrote. “We have signed agreements for Erik Melin and Jim Melin totaling roughly 800 [acres in Wisconsin].”
By Tuesday, the DNR decided it was done. The agency sent a letter to Cumberland saying the company had not verified all the acres it would use, and needs to try again. “Due to the substantial change in operational plans, the Department is rejecting the permit application for Cumberland LLC,” the DNR’s French wrote.
The question of how much land and which specific parcels Cumberland is planning to spread manure on is important. The permit for such facilities requires a Nutrient Management Plan, which essentially shows when, where, and how waste will be spread. Soil tests and other information for the chosen fields must be provided, and spreading restricted to levels the soil can safely absorb. A precise list of fields is essential to ensuring these plans work.
For some neighbors who have been fighting the Cumberland proposal, the incorrect and inadequate information is not surprising. It’s the exact same problem that plagued a similar proposal in Bayfield County, near Lake Superior, in 2015, which involved some of the same individuals and businesses as Cumberland.
“These livestock developers have been able to grab a plat map and start writing down landowner names whether they have an agreement or not,” said Lisa Doerr, a local farmer and activist. “Cumberland’s Jeff Sauer tried the same trick up in Bayfield County in 2015. We are grateful that the DNR appears to be putting a stop to that!”
In the 2015 case, several landowners ultimately signed a letter to the DNR and county board explaining their fields had been included in the Nutrient Management Plan, even though they would not allow spreading.
“Signatories have neither a written nor a verbal land spreading agreement with this CAFO, and as such the Badgerwood NMP currently over-estimates the available acreage for the spreading of the operation’s manure,” the landowners wrote. “Please note that we make this decision because we value our current quality of life more than the economic benefit such a lease would yield.”
So far, the Bayfield County proposal has not proceeded. The DNR told the company it still needed to provide information about wetlands at its site in March 2015, and the agency began work on environmental review. With no response from the company, it halted the review in 2016.
Production, not protection
The incorrect information is representative of larger problems with Cumberland’s manure plan, which neighbors say is misguided at best.
“We have issues with the entire nutrient management planning process,” said Lisa Doerr, a Laketown farmer who helped develop local ordinances in Trade Lake and four other neighboring towns. “It was developed to maximize crop production, not protect water.”
While Cumberland has been working and reworking its application over the past few years, local communities have puts rules in place to protect land, water, air, and property values. Several rural towns have passed ordinances to regulate such facilities.
At least one of the local ordinances is now facing a political challenge. A town board election next week is expected to serve as a sort of referendum on the ordinance. Two challengers, Merle Larson and Ron Peterson, are running against incumbents Mark Johnson and Bruce Paulsen, who helped pass the ordinance.
In addition, a lawsuit against Laketown filed by the state’s largest business group is also proceeding. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce sued the town over its ordinance last November. Laketown has retained legal counsel and is mounting a vigorous defense. A preliminary hearing is currently scheduled for May 12 in Polk County circuit court.
Nonetheless, Cumberland has been blocked in no uncertain terms, for now.
“The application has been rejected and must be entirely resubmitted if Cumberland LLC intends to continue to pursue [the permit],” the DNR’s French wrote to the company earlier this week.