Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker recently released his policy piece on agriculture, “The Scott Walker Plan to Help our Agriculture and Dairy Industry.”  Let’s explore just a few of the ways in which his plan would promote CAFO expansion and threaten the environment.

1)  Permit “Streamlining.”

The Walker Plan states:

Right now, games are being played with permits and agencies are dragging their feet. We must reform the process so agricultural job creators can plan growth and new hires with predictability.  My administration will support legislation to require state agencies to review permit applications within 60 days of receipt. If the application is not approved or denied by the state agency within 180 days of receipt, the application will be presumed approved.

First, lets be clear: small family farms don’t need any permits in Wisconsin.  He’s talking about CAFOs – the largest 2% of Wisconsin’s livestock facilities – and the only farms that need DNR permits.  As explained in earlier posts, only livestock facilities designated as  Large CAFOs, with 1,000 animal units or more, need a DNR permit; that permit is a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act that is intended to reduce water pollution from industrial-scale farms.  So this point of the Walker Plan has no impact on small family farms.

Second, any attempt to “presume” the approval of a Clean Water Act permit would be flatly illegal.  Those permits (which are called Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or WPDES, permits), are required to ensure that state-established water quality standards can be maintained, and they do this in part by requiring the operator to create and follow a Nutrient Management Plan.  These plans can be complex and require time for agency staff to review them – especially when a CAFO operator submits an incomplete plan or submits the plan piecemeal, which happens all the time.  In addition, WPDES Permits (even for CAFOs) must provide opportunities for public participation, including a minimum 30-day public comment period.  If somebody wanted to store 100,000,000 gallons of liquid manure next door to you, you’d probably want to make sure they were doing everything possible to prevent contamination of surface and groundwater.

Third, Walker fails to mention why permitting can take so long for CAFOs in Wisconsin: the industrial livestock industry has starved the DNR CAFO program of the staff and financial resources it needs to do its important work.  A CAFO permit application fee often covers less than 20% of the staff time needed to review the permit application (my estimate), not to mention DNR resources needed for field inspections and compliance and enforcement activities.  The rest of the funding comes from the agency budget which has been slashed in recent years.  If CAFOs were required to pay a fair application fee (let’s call it the “break even” fee, sufficient to cover the permit application review process) permits might be issued much faster.

2)  The “Modernization” Nod

The Walker Plan says:

Through the use of technology, Wisconsin’s farmers will be able to produce even more of the quality products they are known for. To help facilitate this transition to the next generation of farming, I support tax incentives aimed at modernizing the farms of today so they can compete with the farms of tomorrow.

Modernization, of course, is often used as CAFO code for “expansion” – Walker wants Wisconsin taxpayers to pay for the growth of industrial farming.  Note what he fails to mention:

  • Tax incentives for small family farms, organic farms, local food distribution networks, farm-to-table programs, nutrition programs, CSA programs, conservation programs, and myriad other agricultural programs with tremendous value to the economy, environment, and public health of Wisconsin.
  • Tax incentives or other programs to increase the number of farmers or the number of farms,  not just the size of farms, for example educational programs for new or potential farmers; start-up tax incentives; etc.
  • Efforts to protect struggling small and medium sized farms from illegal competitive practices

In fact, his Plan fails to mention any effort to retain agricultural diversity or protect traditional farming in Wisconsin.  He is, in essence, catering to the profit motives of the largest 2% of farms while ignoring the needs of the 10,000+ small family farms that are struggling to get by.

3)  Preserve the Right to Pollute

The Walker Plan states:

Unfortunately, [the] growth of residential communities near farming operations is creating a new threat to agricultural industry.  Family farmers have enough to worry about without having to find the time and money to fight baseless lawsuits. I support improvements to Wisconsin’s “Right to Farm” law so that farmers can devote their time and energy to the crops and livestock that our families depend on. I am also committed to reforming our legal system so that property rights of farmers and all landowners across the state are protected.

Wisconsin’s Right to Farm law is really a Right to Pollute.  It prevents Wisconsin citizens from obtaining legal redress where an industrial CAFO causes a “nuisance” that impairs a property owner’s use and enjoyment of their own property.

Imagine: you retire the country, buying a plot of land next to a lovely 100-head family dairy farm.  The following year, that small family dairy farm is forced out of business because it can’t compete with industrial farms in the region (see #2 above, on tax incentives) and sells to a corporation that wants to build a brand new 10,000 head CAFO.  A year after that, the large CAFO is storing a hundred million gallons of manure just upwind of your house (and the odor is so horrific that you can’t open your windows during the summer); twenty semi-trailers rumble in and out of the driveway each day, hauling milk, silage, and manure; the 20-acre industrial facility is light up at night like a baseball stadium; and the value of your property has dropped by 50%.  You should be able to have a chance to argue in court that the CAFO is creating a nuisance and affecting your use of your own property, but the Right to Farm law changes the traditional nuisance standard and makes it much harder for you to win the case.  And if you try it anyway and lose, you have to pay the CAFO’s legal fees.

Most disputes between large farms and nearby residents aren’t caused by “the growth of residential communities” in agricultural areas.  Rather, they are caused by the growth of industrial farming in well-established rural communities, where new large CAFOs threaten a long-standing way of life.  Rosendale Dairy is the perfect example: the CAFO was brand new, but the residents who opposed the new facility had been there for years.

Walker’s Plan would put Wisconsin on a course of unfettered expansion of industrial farming while derailing our true agricultural heritage of small family farms.  Let’s hope he doesn’t get the chance to put it into action.