People are always complaining, justifiably so, about how we never hear any “good news” anymore. We don’t hear about all the good deeds and random acts of kindness some folks are doing, about the humble, unsung heroes among us.
Well, I’m here to change all that, to brighten up your day, put a smile on your face. It’s a story about a group of good-hearted farmers who are out to set things right in the world, to lend a helping hand, to go the extra mile.
No, they’re not delivering blankets and medical supplies to the Native Americans fighting the oil pipeline at Standing Rock. Guess again. Instead they’ve banded together to do some good right here in Wisconsin. They’ve even formed a nonprofit.
What’s the problem they’re tackling? you ask. Well, it seems there are people in the northeast part of our state who don’t have good drinking water. Doesn’t that beat all? I mean, this isn’t Flint, Michigan. This is America’s Dairyland, home of bucolic green fields, quaint red barns, cute brick silos and, here and there, a small herd of contented cows grazing in a pasture.
No water to drink?! How could that be? This is where people come to vacation. To fish in the water, to swim in the water, to sit on the shore on a summer evening and gaze at the sun setting over the water. We even brew our beer from “sky-blue water.”
What’s going on here? Do these well-intentioned farmers have a few screws loose? When they’re sitting around the kitchen table late at night playing Sheepshead, can it be they’re not playing with a full deck? Do we need to report them to the Department of Tourism before they bring our lovely state some bad publicity?
Stick with me on this. It gets stranger. It turns out these good-hearted farmers may be the ones responsible for the fact that a lot of people in northeast Wisconsin can’t drink their own water. What’s more, it turns out these good-hearted farmers aren’t farmers at all. They’re factory owners. They don’t have farms. They run things called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO for short). Actually, they don’t even have cows. They raise something called animal units.
Now I know what you’re thinking. If these CAFO folks are out in the countryside and they have some animals (or animal units), they must be farmers. Nope. Guess again. Hard to believe it but some people started this large-scale confinement stuff back in the 1940s and 50s. They labeled it “factory farming” themselves. (That was when factories had a better reputation.) Then the 1970s rolled around and people learned about factory pollution, so these CAFO folks starting calling what they were doing “industrial” animal production.
Well, you’ve heard the saying “a rose by any other name” … Or a skunk by any other name … but it’s still a skunk. The point is, it’s not a farm, it’s not agrarian, it’s not animal husbandry. It’s something new, at least relatively new to Wisconsin, and it’s an industrial model. And it smells worse than a skunk.
How well is your water?
It turns out that a study released last December found that 34 percent of wells tested in Kewaunee County contained unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria. About two percent of tested wells were contaminated with E. coli. (These wells have been tested for about a decade.) A lot of people were starting to get upset: homeowners, real farmers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
So then these CAFO folks announced, a little earlier this month, that they had set up this nonprofit named Peninsula Pride Farms and they were starting a program called Water Well. They wanted to promote sustainable farming practices and protect ground and surface water, they said.
The CAFO folks explained that if county residents had their wells tested, at their own expense, and if the test was positive for E. coli, and if they reported it to the County Health Department, and then contacted Peninsula Pride Farms (PPF) to schedule a well inspection, they would get free bottled water for three months. PPF will also provide cost-sharing on a water treatment system for homeowners with an E. coli problem whose wells are not at fault. (I promised you I had good news!)
Don Niles, the PPF president, advised that giving away free water is not an admission of guilt, that dumping millions of gallons of manure on farm fields every year may not have anything to do with the problem. Niles manages a factory near the town of Casco with 2,850 cows, (which comes to 3,990 animal units, if my math is right). His factory is named Dairy Dreams. (Lots of folks in Kewaunee County are having dairy nightmares, but we’ll get to that in a future blog.)
Anyway, PPF, Kewaunee County and the DNR all signed an MOU (that stands for memorandum of understanding) which says that the Water Well program is not an admission of liability or wrong-doing by any party. (I forgot what the acronym DNR stands for these days, but Scott Dye with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP) says it means Does Not Respond. That sounds about right.
“What we are doing is owning our share,” Niles was quoted as saying. “We don’t want people getting sick here on our watch. Putting our brains together as farmers allowed us to take action that’s different than what has been done for decades.”
Some people are reportedly pleased that these “farmers” have stepped forward with this goodwill gesture. The Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy seemed almost exuberant. The program provides a new role for farmers “that is very much appreciated,” said TNC’s Steve Richter. “It is through such collaboration that big changes can occur and differences overcome, with the outcome being a healthier landscape for people and nature,” Richter wrote in a letter to Niles.
I wish I could say I was making all this up but I don’t have that much imagination. I’m not sure about this new role for “farmers” that is “different than what has been done for decades” but I can sketch a quick picture of what’s transpired over the last two decades or so. It isn’t pretty.
CAFOs and Kewaunee County: What’s all the stink about?
The number of CAFOs in Wisconsin exploded in the fifteen years between 1995 and 2010, growing from eight to 154, an increase of 1,825 percent. (A dairy CAFO in Wisconsin contains 1,000 animal units or 700 cows or more.) Today there are about 280 CAFOs permitted by the DNR and more with applications pending.
As with all types of industrial animal production, while the CAFOs increase in number and expand in size, the number of smaller dairy farms steadily shrinks. Wisconsin lost about 140,000 dairy farms since 1944. At the same time, the number of actual dairy cows in the state has changed little in the last 20 years.
Northeast Wisconsin has become a sacrifice zone of sorts for industrial agriculture. Today there are over 70 CAFOs in six counties in or adjoining the watershed (Door, Kewaunee, Brown, Manitowoc, Calumet and Outagamie counties). Brown County leads the state in total CAFOs (20) but Kewaunee can probably claim the title as the official cesspool of Wisconsin.
Each dairy cow produces the waste equivalent of 18 people. Kewaunee County, with 15 dairy CAFOs and one beef CAFO, produces waste equivalent to 924,882 humans, (the combined population of Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay) though its population is only 20,574. To put it delicately, Kewaunee County is in deep doo doo.
As detailed in a report released by SRAP, Kewaunee Cares and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) a year ago June, the county ranks first in cattle density, first for CAFO density per acre and first in recent cow herd growth.
Three of the areas in Wisconsin with the largest concentrations of CAFOs—the northeast, the driftless region of southern Wisconsin, and the western counties—are also the areas with karst geology. Carbonate bedrock, limestone or dolomite rock formations that are commonly fractured, underlies a broad V-shaped swath of the state from the Door Peninsula to southwest Wisconsin and up to St. Croix County. These carbonate rocks are soluble and percolating surface water can enlarge fractures to form conduits, caves and sinkholes that are hallmarks of a karst system, according to a 2009 fact sheet from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.
What this means, simply put, is that these karst systems provide important aquifers that are also extremely vulnerable to contamination because groundwater flow can be very rapid and carbonate rocks do a poor job of filtering out contaminants.
Ten years ago the county conservationists from five northeast counties came together to form a task force to study the problem of groundwater quality in this karst region. The task force included university scientists and representatives of state and federal agencies. The Kewaunee County Conservationist noted in their report that two different programs run by county agencies had been testing rural wells and uncovered water quality problems. One program found 18 percent of wells tested were bacteriologically unsafe for human consumption and with nitrate levels exceeding the human health standard (10 ppm). A program dating back to 1996—20 years ago—found that about 30 percent of well water tested was unsafe for human consumption due to bacteria or nitrates above the health standard.
The report released by the task force in early 2007 recommended a number of actions including enhancing manure storage requirements in carbonate bedrock areas, reducing water use in manure systems to create more solid manure, and establishing uniform ordinances and enforcement at the town level. The report recommended different policies for managing manure depending on the depth of soil covering the fractured bedrock. Some of the soils in northeast Wisconsin are extremely shallow.
Oops! I think I spilled something
Of course, the problem of polluted wells barely scratches the surface of what’s the matter with factory farms. There have been accidental spills, discharges and over-application of manure resulting in polluted run-off into streams, lakes, wetlands and rivers. There have been horrendous fish kills in trout streams dating back to the 1990s. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that there were a record number of manure spills in the state—over one million gallons worth—in 2013. In September, 2014 a manure system malfunction at a Door County dairy caused 640,000 gallons of liquid manure to flow across fields and into Sugar Creek. A week later, state environmental officials ordered the farmer to remove retaining dikes in the creek, allowing the remaining effluent—now over three million gallons—to flow downstream into a bay connected to Lake Michigan. (So much for the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”.)
Nowadays, factory owners in northeast Wisconsin and elsewhere have taken to spraying liquid manure on fields, which can only exacerbate the air pollution problems that accompany industrial agriculture. A CAFO can produce 160 to 170 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and gases, with the most notable culprits being ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter.
A growing public health concern is the habitual over-use of antibiotics at CAFOs for non-therapeutic purposes such as to promote growth and deter disease outbreaks. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, about 70 percent of all antibiotics made in the US are used in the livestock industry.
Livestock waste stored in lagoons that is then applied to fields as fertilizer can introduce antibiotic resistance (AR) bacteria into the local environment. The AR bacteria can also be spread by wind, the transporting of livestock, and even via flies and other creatures.
“This is not the future of agriculture, this is the end of agriculture in this country as we know it.” — John Ikerd
There is a whole laundry list of ills that come with factory farms that is much too long to enumerate here. Earlier this month, I attended a national Factory Farm Summit in Green Bay and heard Dr. John Ikerd speak. Ikerd is a former professor of Agricultural Economics who was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri. He spent 30 years in professional positions at state universities and the last 20 years writing and speaking about sustainable agriculture and the evils of industrial agriculture. I had heard him speak several times before.
Ikerd maintains that the maltreatment of animals and the negative impacts that CAFOs have on the vitality of rural communities are reason enough to oppose them, above and beyond the scourge they represent to public health and our physical environment.
The science and data now exist to demonstrate unequivocally that industrial agriculture is a disaster, environmentally, socially and economically, Ikerd insists. Sixty years of history on large confinement animal operations shows that “we consistently lose something like 90 percent of independent producers” when the factory farm system moves in, he said.
“This is not the future of agriculture, this is the end of agriculture in this country as we know it,” said Ikerd. “In fighting factory farms, there is no middle ground,” he added, calling for a national moratorium on CAFOs.
I agree with Ikerd that this is what we ought to be fighting for, instead of settling for a donation of bottled water, a public relations gimmick. Back in 1998, (nearly twenty years ago!), Senator Alice Clausing (D-Menomonie), chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environmental Resources, introduced a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature calling for a moratorium on new or expanded factory farms.
Where are our legislators today? Why are they silent about what is arguably the most serious environmental issue confronting the state? Are they willing to accept, along with some of our environmental organizations, a few cases of bottled water while our beautiful Wisconsin is transformed into one giant cesspool?
The floodgates are opened
It would be comforting to report that this mess all began when Scott Walker opened Wisconsin for business, but that is not the case. It was Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who was at the helm and opened the cow poop floodgates. Thank you, Mr. Doyle.
I was there, in northeast Wisconsin, watching it unfold. This was about the time the Treml family in Kewaunee County, who lived across the road from a factory farm, turned on their kitchen tap one day and discovered brown liquid coming out of the faucet. The entire family got sick and their six-month-old daughter, Samantha, nearly died.
I was commuting from the southern part of the state, a day or two each week, helping to organize a watershed organization. As I recall, my stipend came from the Do Not Respond (DNR) agency, supplied by a Chicago foundation I won’t bother to name. The foundation grant paid for a second person whose job it was to go arrange conversations with the handful of factory farmers then in the region. While I was helping small local groups devise ways to protect the watershed, this other person would chummy up to the factory owners to encourage them to become good neighbors. Much like The Nature Conservancy wants to do today.
(“If we can be a part of changing for the better the way farms of that size are having an impact, it would be a good thing,” TNC’s Richter told me on the phone after he sent his letter to Peninsula Pride Farms. Good luck, Steve.)
Anyway, me and this other staff person and our fledgling watershed organization were just pawns in a much bigger game with higher stakes. Someone else was holding the rulebook and they weren’t sharing the rules. There were a lot of people playing the game, all interested, for some strange reason, in this same watershed. It was an unholy alliance of the aforementioned Do Not Respond agency, other state agencies, agricultural groups, some of the country’s most prestigious universities, and the Dutch government and various Dutch agencies.
Huh? What were the Dutch doing poking their noses into rural Wisconsin? It wasn’t until years later when a factory farmer from California and by way of Nebraska decided to open up for business in Rock County that I began to connect a few of the dots. Double Dutch Dairy was the name of one of his factories in Nebraska. Now he’s working on his second Wisconsin cow factory, to be located in Green County.
Back then I had already been around the block a few times, but I was still in way over my head. I wish I had known what I know now, and I still don’t know nearly enough. What I do know is that there is no middle ground in this battle. It’s a fight for our communities, our health, our land, our way of life. A case or two of bottled water won’t do.
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