In Wisconsin, small towns want more regulations for big farms

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The state farm lobby says local efforts to regulate CAFOs are illegal.

This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to his weekly newsletter here.

A historic family farm in Trade Lake, Wisconsin (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Laketown, Wisconsin is a rural community of 949 people spread between the lush green fields and vast lakes of the state’s northwest corner, just over an hour from Minneapolis. Lisa Doerr has lived there since 2001, when she and her husband started growing hay and grass for cattle and raising horses. The city and its surroundings, the valley of the Sainte-Croix river, are home to many small farmers like them; much of the food people eat here is locally grown.

“It’s not a big business,” Doerr said. “There is a lot to protect here.”

Now Laketown is at the center of a battle over that rural character, as the town aims to limit pollution from large factory livestock farms, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.

In recent months, Laketown and two nearby towns, Trade Lake and Eureka, passed laws governing the operation of CAFOs, requiring them to show how they will dispose of dead animals and avoid polluting groundwater. But these policies were strongly pushed back by the powerful state agricultural lobby, which called the new regulations illegal.

(Greg Seitz/Holy Cross 360)

Over the past decade, the industrialization of agriculture has led to a sharp increase in the number of CAFOs, as large livestock operations offer cheaper meat and crowd out small farmers. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of animals living in factory farms increased by 14%, even as the total number of farms decreased.

From North Carolina to Iowa, CAFOs have been found to pollute drinking water, release harmful gases, and promote the spread of disease due to the animals’ confined conditions. In March, a nationwide bird flu outbreak led to a Wisconsin egg farm killing 2.7 million chickens, creating intolerable odors for a community downwind of the site where their bodies were dumped.

Even when CAFOs legally dispose of animal waste — usually by spreading it on nearby fields as fertilizer — the volume of manure can overload local streams and groundwater aquifers with nitrates and bacteria, Adam Voskuil said, a Wisconsin-based attorney for the nonprofit organization Midwest Environmental. Lawyers. This is especially problematic in states like Wisconsin, where more than 900,000 residents rely on private wells for their drinking water.

“There is a health issue associated with this aggregation of contaminants and its transport into private households,” Voskuil said.

In light of these risks, Polk County — where Laketown is located — instituted a one-year moratorium on CAFOs in 2019 to give it time to study the problem and develop a solution. The problem took on added urgency after an Iowa-based company announced plans to build a pig farm near Trade Lake that would house 26,000 pigs and produce 9 million gallons of waste each year.

An anti-CAFO sign stands along the Trade River. (Greg Seitz/Holy Cross 360)

In 2021, Laketown and five other communities formed the Large Livestock Town Partnership to research potential issues with CAFOs and develop a model ordinance that individual towns could adopt to regulate them.

The ordinance requires livestock operations with more than 700 animal units to apply for a permit from the city and pay an application fee. The owner must share the facility’s plans to prevent the spread of infectious disease, implement a waste management strategy, contain air pollution and toxic odors, report unusual animal deaths, maintain fire safety and avoid damage to nearby water resources, as well as demonstrate that the project will provide a net benefit to the city. The application must be signed by at least one “qualified and licensed” professional engineer or geoscientist who has reviewed the proposal.

Since Laketown passed its ordinance in February and two other cities followed suit in March, their efforts have been met with stiff resistance. On April 13, two dairy lobby groups wrote a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Consumer Protection, or DATCP, asking the state to review the orders and arguing that ” cities have clearly ignored laws, regulations and related reviews and approval processes. And late last month, two other dairy associations — Venture Dairy Cooperative and the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance — wrote directly to Laketown, telling the city clerk that the CAFO ordinance “contains at least 16 provisions that are preempted by the state law and illegal”, including imposing fees and requiring odor prevention plans.

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