Commentary


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.

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On February 24 the Assembly Committee on Agriculture held a hearing looking at an extension and expansion of the tax credit which is now available for dairy farms to “modernize” and expand.  I couldn’t get to the hearing in person, but I sent the following letter with questions and concerns.

To: Assembly Committee on Agriculture
From: Sarah Lloyd, NelDell Farms, Wisconsin Dells, WI
Date: February 24, 2010
Re: Questions and Concern on Assembly Bill 756 relating to the dairy and livestock investment tax credits

My name is Sarah Lloyd and I am a dairy farmer in Columbia County, just east of Wisconsin Dells.  My husband, Nels Nelson and I milk 300 cows with his brother and family and my in-laws.  I am not able to make it in-person today to the hearing but I hope that you will consider this memo when you are hearing testimony and considering Assembly Bill 756.

From reading the draft of AB756 under consideration, I have understood that you are considering extending and increasing the tax credits available to dairy farmers for the “modernization” and expansion of their operations.

On the face of it I am not opposed to the extension of the tax credit to January 1, 2012 IF an analysis of how the tax credit has been used so far shows that it is being used equally across the diversity of Wisconsin dairy farms, both from a size and a dairy system perspective.

However, I am NOT in favor of extending the availability of the tax credit if analysis shows that this tax credit has primarily gone to facilitate and encourage the expansion of large farms in Wisconsin.

What sort of farms and operations have taken advantage of this tax credit?

I am asking that if the Assembly Committee on Agriculture has not already seen an analysis of how the tax credit has been used, that you do this before making a decision about AB756.

Also I would urge that you do NOT increase the maximum tax credit to $75,000, as currently proposed.   Is it necessary to increase this?  During this time at what is hopefully the end of a long period of low milk prices, what sort of farm is able to spend $750,000 in expansion and modernization?  Does this increase only allow more benefits for large-scale CAFOs?  Currently the maximum tax credit under this program is $50,000.  I would urge you to maintain it at the current level.  This will provide plenty of incentive for farms that want to make improvements, while not further encouraging larger farms.

We do not need more, larger dairy farms in Wisconsin.  Currently our average herd size is around 100 cows.  And we have a good mix of sizes and shapes (confinement herds to rotational grazing herds).  This diversity is vital for the resiliency of our dairy industry, economically.  But the number and diversity of dairy farms is also vital for our rural communities, our schools, our churches, etc.

It seems very common to hear that we have to make sure we have large-CAFOs to maintain milk production volumes to keep our dairy processing industry healthy.  And so we must make available lots of incentives and encouragement, like the tax credits proposed in AB756.  I do not dispute that our dairy processing industry needs to be healthy.  But we can supply this industry with milk in many different ways.

According to figures just released by the USDA Wisconsin produced just over 25 billion pounds of milk in 2009.  And the average Wisconsin cow produced just over 20,000 pounds of milk a year.  So to maintain this 25 billion pounds we need 1,250,000 cows.  Here is an example of the different “ways” we can produce that 25 billion pounds of milk in Wisconsin:

•    12,500 dairy farms with an average herd size of 100 cows (basically what we have now).
•    2,500 dairy farms with an average herd size of 500 cows
•    1,250 dairy farms with an average herd size of 1,000 cows
•    250 dairy farms with an average herd size of 5,000 cows.
There are heavy implications for communities, the economy, people, and the land depending on what scenario Wisconsin chooses to set it sights on.  I urge the Assembly Committee on Agriculture and decision-makers in the state to do what they can to maintain the first scenario and not put all its efforts, money, and resources in creating the 250, 5,000 cow variant.

I appreciate your consideration of my questions and concerns on AB756.

Thank you,

Sarah Lloyd

La Crosse Tribune columnist Joe Orso had an excellent column in today’s paper.  Beginning with a quote from Wauzeka farmer Fred Hausler, who explains that living downwind from a hog farm can be miserable (“You pretty near want to throw up when you go outside”), Joe goes on to explain in clear terms why the Livestock Siting Law is so damaging to rural communities:

Critics of the rule say odor regulations are inadequate, distance requirements between factory farms and neighbors should be increased, and fees local governments can charge for an application should not be capped at $1,000.  But while they’d like to see changes made on these fronts, they hope the listening sessions lead to a broader shift in how Wisconsin manages large-scale agriculture.  “The changes we can make to the rule won’t really get to the root of the problem because the problem is embedded in the statute itself,” said Jamie Saul, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates.

Citizens around the state will use DATCP’s series of listening sessions to explain not only the failings of the rules governing the siting and expansion of massive livestock facilities, but also the cruel effects of the Siting Law itself.  For more information on how you can be a part of these listening sessions, see MEA’s website.

Wisconsin organic farmer, Food and Society Fellow, and MEA Board Member Jim Goodman wrote an excellent opinion piece on the need for small, local, sustainable agriculture in Monday’s Capital Times.

As he thoughtfully explains:

Small is the future. We know indigenous farmers can produce more food using traditional farming methods. They have no need of genetically modified seed or chemicals. All they need is an end to wars and, as Frances Moore Lappe would say, “more democracy.” The World Bank and the G-8 need to let them make their own decisions and feed themselves.

Western countries need to take a step back. We cannot continue to feed grass-eating animals a diet of grain, nor can we continue to fill our fuel tanks with grain. We cannot continue to encourage and subsidize industrial agriculture at the expense of small local producers.

What we can do is return to local and regional food production. We can allow the rest of the world to feed themselves by reining in the influence of multinational grain and chemical companies. We can redevelop local communities and keep local dollars local, rather than filling the coffers of offshore corporate bank accounts.

Thanks for the encouragement, Jim!  And by the way, on his small farm in Wonewoc, Northwood Farm, Jim raises organic, grassfed beef the non-CAFO way.   Supporting family farmers like Jim is essential in the fight against factory farms.

Big ag has fallen in love… Big ag loves studies. For big ag, studies are a great excuse to delay regulation. The the bounty of this love is a disaster for those of us who care about clean air and water.

Here in Wisconsin the most recent study and delay example is the “Ag Waste Rule”. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from factory farms have the potential to negatively impact human health. Many of us have experienced the stench arising from these concentrations of thousands of animals. I maintain that “Mother Nature” gave us a sense of smell to aid our survival. Wisconsin citizens were well served in 2004 when the DNR and legislature agreed to implement air emission rules that would include factory farms by 2008. Wisconsin industries emitting ammonia and other pollutants are already regulated, but agriculture has an unexplained exemption. Succumbing to pressure from the agriculture lobby, our DNR delayed these new rules until 2011 citing the need for more study (of Wisconsin’s 14,000 dairy farms, only 150 or so of the very largest would have been affected). Based on what we already know and from the approaches taken in Iowa and Minnesota, our DNR was in a good position to implement in 2008. Shame!

Delay resulting from additional study of manure spreading in karst geographic areas is another desire of big ag. The Northeast Wisconsin Regional Karst Task Force made recommendations more than a year ago in a peer reviewed report that included sever spreading restrictions. Scientists with groundwater, geology, and karst knowledge were part of the task force membership. Agriculture was also represented. Big ag’s lobbying groups didn’t like the results and have asked the State for more study by organizations like Discovery Farms. Shame!

It isn’t just Wisconsin where big ag is in love with studies. Iowa’s Ag Secretary consulted with corporate farming groups and then proposed an odor study having the effect of delaying any real action to control odor by the state. A month ago Iowa environmentalists were celebrating the apparent rejection by legislators of this proposed study on CAFO stench. The apparent win was short-lived… big ag lobby groups have now succeeded in pushing the 23 million dollar study through the Iowa House. They also made sure the study wasn’t funded so it will simply stop regulation.  Shame!

Welcome to the inaugural post to Wisconsin CAFO Watch. We hope you find this blog useful and informative.