Polk County’s Unit of the Wisconsin Towns Association (WTA) had plenty to discuss at their quarterly meeting on August 22. The proposed concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) that Iowa’s Suidae Health and Production wants to build in Trade Lake led to, in recent weeks, the passage of a one-year moratorium on large-scale farms consisting of 1000 or more animal units by the Burnett County Board. In Polk County, the town of Laketown, which borders Trade Lake, voted for a similar measure last month. 

County board chair Dean Johansen, whose 3rd District includes Laketown, has presented Resolution 33-19, which calls for a county-wide six-month moratorium on the building or expansion of livestock facilities consisting of 500 or more animal units. Another motion, Resolution 36-19, authored by District 4’s Chris Nelson, suggests similar action be taken regarding hog facilities, like the proposed CAFO in Trade Lake. These drafts were inspired by constituent concerns about impacts on property values, and the environment and the lack of policy addressing CAFOs. Nelson’s is posed as an alternative to Johansen’s. Both will next be debated at the Environmental Services Committee meeting on Aug. 28, beginning at 9 a.m. in the Polk County Board Room.

CAFO supporters

At the WTA meeting, objections to a potential moratorium came from those leery about agricultural and economic setbacks that could result from such temporary regulation. 

“Farms are growing, and they’re going to keep growing in order to have the lifestyle that they used to have,” Osceola dairy farmer Warren Johnson said. “People don’t realize farming is seven days a week, and no Christmas off. In order to have a lifestyle that people in town get to have, your business has to grow. When we bring a new business into the industrial park, everybody applauds. And when you see a farm grow, it’s almost like you committed a crime. For a state that was built on agriculture, I just don’t feel that we get the respect that we deserve.”

Rick Wester of Eureka pointed out what he perceived as hypocrisy from concerned constituents, since five CAFOs already exist in Polk County.

“I just got elected this spring, and I wish I wasn’t, because my family farms,” Wester said. “Just listening to the opposition makes me wish I wasn’t even on the board, because it seems like we’re the bad guy… On the news, in the papers, all these people are saying how bad it’s going to be for our rivers and lakes. That’s one of their main things. So at [a board] meeting, I said, ‘we’ve got CAFOs in this area, let’s go tour some.’ Their exact response has been, at multiple meetings, ‘we don’t care about dairy CAFOs.’ So right there, their whole issue about water quality is right out the window. They just don’t want to think of a hog farm.”

Osceola businessman Phil Mattison spoke of the economic growth that CAFOs could bring to the region.

“The most valuable jobs in our community are the mining jobs, and the farming jobs, the manufacturing jobs, and the distribution jobs, for one reason and one simple reason alone. All those jobs bring dollars from out of town, into our community,” Madison said. “You know what’s most famous about Route 66? Everything on that road is evaporated. ... If we don’t embrace people that help us find dollars from out of town, and bring ‘em into our town, we will be Route 66.”

While public comment was allowed, Johansen and Supervisor Doug Route made clear that the WTA meeting, which included a DNR presentation on state CAFO permitting and regulatory processes as they relate to water quality, was intended to be educational in nature, and that no policy would be created during its duration.

DNR regulations

Controversy surrounds CAFOs from many angles, including environmental, economic and ethical, but DNR regulations, enforced through the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES), aim to ensure that CAFOs leave no negative environmental footprint with regards to water quality. 

Large amounts of animal manure and its application to the ground as fertilizer, as well as wastewater, could harm local waters if runoff is not controlled. For dairy and beef facilities, discharge of manure and wastewater from the farm area is not allowed according to WPDES restrictions, save for extenuating circumstances related to precipitation, in which case said runoff must not prove a detriment to local waterways or cause fish kill. In short, all that’s produced has to be contained.

“If somebody’s going to build a new swine operation, somewhere in the state from scratch, their runoff control limitation is… actually more restrictive,” wastewater engineer Thomas Bauman of the Madison DNR said. “For a new source swine operation, that ‘bowl’ can never overflow and discharge to a navigable water.”

The reason for this is that for a swine facility — the production area- where animals and their feed are kept — and waste is created- tends to be entirely under a roof, shielded from the elements.

“You just don’t have the exposure to precipitation that would necessitate the need to have allowances of discharge from that production area,” Bauman said.

As far as the application of manure goes, regulations vary depending upon the weather and season. During the winter months, surface application of solid manure is only allowed on frozen ground covered in less than an inch of snow, while surface application of liquid manure is banned. If snowfall is between one and four inches, manure can be applied through injection (liquid manure only) or incorporation (mixing it into the soil). Additional restrictions apply within close proximity to navigable waters.

Bauman emphasized that the WPDES is not responsible for regulating other aspects of CAFOs such as animal welfare or air quality. It does not implement local requirements or moratoria, nor is it a siting program. 

“When we get an application and somebody’s telling us where they want to go, what we do is we draft up a permit for that location, that we believe is going to protect water quality,” Bauman said.

For first-time permittees, an application for a CAFO is typically submitted a year before the minimum threshold of 1000 animal units is scheduled to be reached, and an on-site inspection is completed by the DNR before the permit is granted. Permits are valid for five years, and in the fourth year, another inspection takes place before a reissuance-application reminder is sent to the permittee 180 days before the expiration date.

Self-inspections are crucial for the safety and maintenance of a CAFO, although they might be cause for citizen concern about lack of oversight, as Bauman acknowledged.

“Realistically speaking, that is how it has to be,” he said. “You’ve got 310 CAFOs in the state of Wisconsin. I don’t think, practically speaking, that you could have 310 CAFO staff people working for all those operations.”

When self-monitoring, farmers must collect samples of manure and soil to determine nutrient content. They must perform daily inspections of water lines, weekly inspections of waste storage facilities and quarterly inspections of outdoor vegetated areas. If non-compliance with regulations occurs in a way that could be a threat to public health or the environment, the DNR must be contacted within 24 hours. 

Moratorium: ‘a time out’

Paul Mahler, a municipal attorney with Bakke Norman who represents several villages and towns in Polk, St. Croix and Dunn counties, spoke about what, exactly, a moratorium entails.

“A moratorium is essentially just a time-out,” Mahler said. “It… is a temporary measure to allow the towns, or the county, to do an investigation, to decide whether they want to take the next step in enacting a further ordinance.”

Such moratoria do not apply to facilities where an application has already been made, such as the proposed hog CAFO in Burnett County.

Zoning is also an important factor to consider. One of the chief reasons for the proposed moratoria is the lack of clarity about CAFOs in current county laws. Resolutions 33-19 and 36-19 state that while ordinances dealing with comprehensive land use, shoreland protection and floodland zoning exist, “these Ordinances do not set forth specific regulations, methods of permitting, or methods of monitoring of Large Scale… Farming facilities within Polk County.”

Laws regarding CAFOs are under the purview of the state statutes, but zoning is a way for communities to wield local control. 

“You can’t put a CAFO in an area that’s zoned residential… [but] you have to have at least one agricultural district in the town, ” Mahler said. “There’s lots of groups that just want to say no [to CAFOs]. Well, that decision’s been made, and if people want to prohibit these things, they shouldn’t be talking to the people in this room. They should be going down to Madison and talking to those folks, ‘cause those are the ones making those decisions.”

Aug. 28’s early-morning meeting may see the next step for the proposed resolutions, but public hearings on the matter of proposed changes to CAFO siting laws will also take place in Spooner at the DNR Service Center on Thursday, Sept. 5 from 1 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Polk County’s WTA unit next convenes on Thursday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m. in the Polk County Board Room.

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