Wisconsin needs science to guide where large, factory-sized farms should go.
Consider Kewaunee County. Here is a county that has seen an explosive, 60 percent increase in dairy cows since 1983, which includes the start-up and expansion of what are now 16 dairy Concentrated Animal Feeding Organizations (CAFOs). The manure from 97,000 cows stored in 220 storage pits is biannually spread on the county’s thin soils and, predictably, fouls water wells. Sixty percent of the county’s water wells test positive for fecal microbes. Proximity to a manure pit increases the chance of well contamination. Beyond well contamination, the county’s surface waters are a disaster, too. The county’s three major rivers — the Ahnapee, East Twin and Kewaunee — all violate state phosphorus standards.
Lots of blame can be assigned for this environmental nightmare, but, at some point, one has to look at the state livestock siting law. This is the law that governs CAFOs. The evidence suggests it is not doing the job it needs to do. In Kewaunee County, there are too many cows in the wrong place.
A good livestock siting process based in objective science would never have allowed this to have happened. Unfortunately, large farm regulation in Wisconsin is on the cusp of getting worse, not better. Republican legislators Sen. Howard Marklein, Spring Green, and Rep. Travis Tranel, Cuba City, this past week decided to — with support from the state’s major farm groups — rewrite the livestock siting law and take a breathless major step in the wrong direction. They reject science.
Rather than have a DATCP Technical Review Board meet every four years to update the livestock siting code based on the latest research, the legislators would empower an appointed board with a built-in majority of ag industry representatives to determine future livestock siting rules. Their bill explicitly gives the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Farmers’ Union, Dairy Business Association, the Wisconsin Pork Producers and the Wisconsin Cattleman’s Association a five vote majority on a nine member board to guide the future of livestock siting in the state. Any proposal considered by the board must pass by a three-quarters majority vote.
Such a board doesn’t need science to decide anything. Politics rigged in your favor works much better. In its public hearing testimony, Midwest Environmental Advocates said the new legislation would essentially freeze in place the state’s existing livestock siting law.
“These provisions would effectively eliminate the possibility that any meaningful revisions to the law will ever be passed,” the group wrote.
We are concerned. Take a place like Marathon County. Here, agriculture is in transition. Small dairy farms are closing their doors. The county’s dozen CAFOs continue to get larger. There may be a time in the next decades when we see a major expansion of large farms. The interests of animal agriculture will be pitted against rural residents. Well water could be threatened. Odor from manure pits could be an issue. Local zoning, but also state policy, will decide whose interests will prevail.
We need regulations based on objective science to decide these thorny issues.
It is unknown what will happen to the Marklein and Tranel bill. Maybe it will die when the legislative session ends. Or maybe it will be passed, but then vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers (who lost his pick for ag secretary over last year’s livestock siting law fight.) Our plea is that the legislature, which will sooner or later update its livestock siting law, follow science and strengthen the state’s livestock siting law, not weaken it with cheap politics. There is a place in Wisconsin for a dairy industry. But people’s wells should not be contaminated. And people shouldn’t be driven off of their homesteads by unbearable odor.
We need objective, science-based rules so rural residents can live in peace with increasingly larger, more consolidated agriculture.
Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review