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A Battle Brews in Rural Wisconsin over CAFOs

A community divided. A local official accused of self-dealing. A top political appointee ousted from his job. In Wisconsin, a state where the footprint of agribusiness is growing, the question of how to regulate factory farms is a pressing topic from the town hall to the statehouse. 

The issue made national news earlier this month, when the Republican-controlled state senate voted not to confirm the governor’s appointee to lead the state’s agriculture department, effectively firing him. The official, Brad Pfaff, had polarized the state’s agriculture groups by supporting stronger regulation of large-scale livestock farms.

Yet, for some time before that, the debate over how to regulate huge animal farms was under way in towns and counties across the state. As the conversation continues, Wisconsin’s residents are facing a defining battle over the rights of rural residents to shape the future of their communities.

Two counties in the Northeastern corner of Wisconsin recently issued temporary moratoriums on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in response to concerns from residents, and plan to use the pause to better evaluate the implications of inviting massive livestock farms to town.

And one small community has been wrestling with a proposed hog CAFO for the better part of a year. The fight over the farm has divided residents and threatened to unseat the town’s board chair, who has served in his role for 30 years.

 Wisconsin joins several other states that are confronting a central question of modern farming: Do massive animal farms harm their neighbors? And whose job it is to address those harms?

A proposed CAFO divides a town

The residents of Trade Lake, a community of a few hundred people on the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota, first got wind of a proposal to bring a 26,000-head hog CAFO to town in January. While the county has plenty of farms, residents were concerned about the size and location of this one. 

The hog operation, and all its accompanying manure and other waste, would be near a tributary of the St. Croix River. The out-of-town farmer, who was the public face of the operation, Jeffrey Sauer, wouldn’t be running the farm himself; rather, he was negotiating the approval process on behalf of the company Cumberland LLC and in conjunction with the Iowa veterinary company Suidae Health and Production.

 About 150 residents of Trade Lake attended a town council meeting in the spring to discuss the proposed CAFO. In that and other recent meetings, many locals expressed concern about the waste and odors that would likely accompany all those animals. They worried that the absentee owners wouldn’t be invested in the community’s welfare. 

“I am totally not opposed to farming,” says Ramona Moody, a longtime Trade Lake resident who has attended these meetings and serves as president of Know CAFOs, a local organization working to inform Wisconsin communities of the possible risks associated with large-scale livestock farms. “I grew up on a dairy farm. I know what it is to take care of animals and watch the environment.”

Yet, she says, “there’s a lot of potential for environmental contamination” from a livestock farm this size. The operation, which would be the first CAFO of its size in the county, estimates that it would produce at least 6.8 million gallons of manure each year. Moody says her house is just 1,000 feet from the proposed farm’s property line.

“If our one aquifer gets contaminated, we can’t find another source for our drinking water,” she says. “It goes much deeper than the things that we see on the surface.

The deal has also engulfed the town’s chair, James Melin, in scandal. Melin’s son, Erik, agreed to sell about 35 acres of family land to the hog operation, which some residents say violates the Wisconsin Code of Ethics because the senior Melin, by nature of his position, has sway over whether the CAFO is approved. They have filed a lawsuit to remove him from his seat.

Meanwhile, Sauer has been belligerent towards the community’s concerns. In a deposition associated with the Melin lawsuit, Sauer referred to residents in Trade Lake who oppose the CAFO as “a bunch of pricks.” He also refused to disclose which hog companies he has worked for.

Sauer did not respond to a request for comment.

The fight over the hog farm eventually prompted Burnett County, where Trade Lake is located, to issue a one-year moratorium on the introduction of new CAFOs in August. Neighboring Polk County also passed a six-month moratorium on new hog operations with over 1,000 animals in October.

But what happens beyond the scope of those moratoriums is an issue of state concern. And a recent political controversy provides a window into the larger debate over CAFOs in Wisconsin.

The fight over CAFOs reaches the statehouse and beyond 

Brad Pfaff was appointed by Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers in January to lead the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Pfaff had formerly worked under the Obama administration at the Department of Agriculture. The state’s GOP lawmakers have stalled the approval process for several of Evers’ cabinet appointees, so Pfaff had been serving as the acting head of the agriculture agency.

Among other issues that drove a wedge between Pfaff and agribusiness, the appointee supported rulemaking that would have changed how the state regulated large livestock farms. The biggest change would be to require farm structures to be set back between 600 and 2,500 feet from the property line, an increase from the existing requirement of 350 feet.

State dairy industry groups, including the Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Dairy Alliance pushed back against the rules, saying they would stymie farmers. Ultimately, Pfaff’s support for the rules was a major reason that GOP state senators voted him out by 19 to 14 on Nov. 5. Such a political overthrow hasn’t happened in the state since the 1980s. 

Kara O’ Connor, government relations director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which supported the livestock farm rulemaking, says that Pfaff’s ouster suggests that agriculture is becoming the site of a “proxy war” between political interests in the state.

“No one would have put ousting public servants and nixing rules to manage odors from manure at the top of the list [of priorities for state legislators],” she says. “And yet that’s what the collective energies of the state government were marshaled to do … It is a demonstration of how removed the workings of our state government are from the priorities of average citizens.”

She says WFU’s members and others in Wisconsin “would be disappointed … if the kind of partisan fracturing that we’re seeing in federal and state politics also seeps down into local politics.”

Yet the pattern from several other Midwestern states suggests that Wisconsin is not alone in seeing communities and regulators divided over how to regulate CAFOs. 

Nebraska has seen an influx of poultry barns in the past two years since Costco announced its new processing plant in Fremont in 2016. Communities across the state have organized, with mixed success, to block the farm operations that would bring scores of chickens into their backyards.

And in Missouri, state legislators earlier this year took away local and county authorities’ ability to oversee CAFOs, restricting them from passing any regulations for industrial farms that are more stringent than the state requirements.

Nationally, a wide range of experts and advocacy groups have expressed concern about how CAFOs are regulated. The American Public Health Association recommended on November 18 that federal, state, and local governments issue moratoriums on new CAFOs “until additional scientific data have been collected and any public health concerns associated with CAFOs are addressed.”

And in a recent report on federal oversight of CAFOs, the Natural Resources Defense Council recommended that states adopt a more stringent permitting process for the facilities and affirm the rights of farm neighbors to bring suits against farms that are violating the Clean Water Act. 

As for what’s next in Trade Lake, Moody says that after a few months of heated meetings, the town is now in a “holding pattern.” She and other community activists hope that Sauer’s farm application will eventually be rejected, though Sauer has said Cumberland will bring legal action against Burnett county if the application is denied.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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