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John Peck, only half-joking, suggests Wisconsin's longtime slogan, "America's Dairyland," may need to be updated. The new slogan: "The Land of 10,000 Animal-Waste Lagoons." He also offers this nightmare scenario:
"Can you imagine tourists driving up to Door County," asks Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a national organization based in Madison, "and having to endure the stench from manure lagoons produced by factory farms?"
Peck's vision may sound implausible, like Godzilla rising from Lake Mendota to level the Capitol. Support for small-scale farming seems overwhelming in Madison, with its strong food co-op movement and a thriving Farmers' Market, drawing 10,000 to 15,000 people to the Square to buy fresh produce from small farmers at reasonable prices.
But Peck says Dane County, which leads the state in agricultural production, with more than $70 million in sales annually and about 400 farms and 50,000 cattle, faces the specter of an increasingly corporatized and globally based food system.
The emerging food system is based increasingly on factory farms or "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs). These often entail the heavy use of antibiotics to ward off the diseases that proliferate when thousands of animals are penned up in confined spaces.
Critics say the system produces vast lagoons of animal waste and sometimes toxic gases. It displaces small family farms with food produced under industrial conditions. And it relies on legions of low-wage laborers.
In 2003, the state of Wisconsin passed a bill that limited the ability of local communities to oppose large farms. But since then, local fights against CAFO siting or expansion have become considerably larger as family farmers, neighbors of CAFO operations and environmental groups have formed sizable coalitions around the state.
Thus far, the conflict between promoters of CAFO-model farming and family-farm advocates has not turned into a major conflagration. But the battle lines are being drawn and rhetoric is heating up, some focused on the issue of food safety.
Says Will Allen, founder of the Milwaukee-based Growing Power, a food-growing and advocacy organization, "Every time there is an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella, we see a lot more people getting involved."
The CAFO-based model is most aggressively promoted by the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association. It brings together groups including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association, the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, the Wisconsin Pork Association and the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.
While the association portrays itself as the voice of dairy farmers who merely want to "Keep cows in Wisconsin," much of its funding comes from corporate donors. Its website says they include Land O'Lakes Purina Feed LLC, Pfizer Animal Health, Accelerated Genetics, Wick Builders, Bayland Building, insurers, financial-service firms and a host of other agribusiness interests.
These funders have a clear financial stake in using antibiotics and genetic modification, financing farm expansion, and building expensive new structures to house vast herds of animals.
Laurie Fischer, the association's executive director, rebuffed repeated interview requests. She and the group's communications director, Peggy S. Dierickx [see note at end], even declined to answer a set of emailed questions, claiming the press of other issues was too great.
More forthcoming was Paul Zimmerman, executive director of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, a statewide farm organization based in Madison. Zimmerman defends larger farming operations, saying many of the criticisms against them could be leveled at smaller farmers as well.
"It all depends on management practices," he says. "You can have problems with water quality whether you have 750 cows or 75 cows."
Likewise with the use of pesticides: "CAFO or no CAFO, raising corn and other crops means you have herbicides and pesticides," Zimmerman maintains. "It's the same regardless of farm size.
Zimmerman sees efforts to draw sharp distinctions between CAFO operators and other farmers as divisive and harmful to the cause of agriculture in Wisconsin: "Pitting one farmer against another is just defeating farming."
Farmers, he suggests, have a hard enough time already. "There is consolidation in the industry," says Zimmerman. "The number of dairy farms has fallen from over 40,000 to 15,000. There's pressure in the middle, on the medium-sized farmer."
The Farm Bureau, he says, tries to propagate responsible practices among all of its 42,000 members. He adds that the industry is trying to respond to criticisms, for instance by adding methane digesters to mitigate odor, a prime concern of CAFO neighbors.
In 1990, according to state Department of Natural Resources data, Wisconsin had just 20 CAFOs - defined as farms of 500 or more animal units (with 714 dairy cows equated with 1,000 animal units). Zimmerman says the state now has roughly 170 CAFOs, about three-fourths of them dairy operations.
These operations account for an increasing share of the state's agricultural output. In 2007, 28 dairy herds of 500 cows or larger - representing less than two-tenths of 1% of Wisconsin's 14,200 dairy farms - accounted for nearly a quarter of all milk production in the state, according to data supplied by the state Department of Agriculture.
On small-scale family farms, manure is not a major problem. They have sufficient space per animal so that the manure generated can be recycled on the land as fertilizer rather than flowing into large lagoons.
"An ideal-sized farm cherishes manure because it fertilizes the land," says Jon Kinsman, an 83-year-old leader of Family Farm Defenders. "In excessive amounts, it becomes a problem. But on a family farm, it's a wonderful source of fertilizer."
CAFOs aim to raise profit by increasing the number of animal "units" producing revenue. These farms are operated as much like a factory assembly line as possible.
"Larger farms have come into existence because it is easier to increase herd size than the land base," says Prof. Thomas Kriegl of the UW Center for Dairy Profitability.
In fact, says Kriegl, smaller farms (under 100 cows) are actually more profitable than larger farms, as measured in earnings per cow or hundred-weight of milk. But larger CAFO-style farms have much larger volumes to make up for lower per-unit earnings.
Peck, a intensely energetic dark-haired man with a Ph.D. in land management from UW-Madison, says family-run farms in Dane County have confronted a daunting new set of pressures from the competition of "factory farms" actively promoted by state policy.
He says state and sometimes Dane County policies are designed to encourage the growth of large farms at the expense of small family farmers. He also says that CAFOs benefit from cozy relationships with big food processors that cut out small farmers. (Family farms are generally considered those where family members do most of the labor and decision making.)
"From the Department of Agriculture to the UW and the UW-Extension, there is a total bias toward factory farms," charges Peck. "Factory farms are not a natural state of agriculture. Instead, factory farms are a policy-induced distortion. That's why just 166 factory farms are getting the lion's share of subsidies and assistance from the state."
The growth of CAFOs has been spurred by state policies that have continued from Republican governors Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum to Democrat Jim Doyle, says Wausau-area farmer Tony Schultz, a board member of Family Farm Defenders. And while Doyle's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection has encouraged some practices that protect Wisconsin's environment, like rotating where farm animals graze, Schultz calls this "crumbs relative to the other policies Doyle is pushing for larger farms."
Adds Jamie Saul, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates: "Gov. Doyle says he wants to promote expansion of dairy industry, but the CAFOs threaten small, sustainable, organic and family farms."
Currently, Dane County has seven CAFOs (see chart). The waste from the animals is collected in lagoons, and some nearby residents say the stench can be overwhelming. "When the wind is blowing from the wrong direction," says Mary Lippert, who lives near a CAFO outside Waunakee, "it can get pretty bad."
Despite the noxious fumes, pollution worries and health concerns, some local officials are eager to "win" the location of factory farms in their jurisdiction because of added jobs and tax revenues.
And for those local officials resistant to CAFOs, the State Livestock Siting Review Act of 2003 passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Doyle prevents local authorities from blocking the construction of CAFOs. The law, which Doyle hailed as "a win-win for farmers and rural communities" and a triumph for "the right to farm," establishes a seven-person board that can overrule local conditions on CAFOs as too restrictive.
Fumes Kinsman, "The state Legislature took away the democratic right of local communities to decide where and how factory farms would operate, and gave it instead to a livestock siting board appointed by the governor." Peck calls the loss of local control inherent in this legislation "a form of subsidy."
In January, Rock County Circuit Court Judge James E. Welker ruled that conditions set by the town of Magnolia were reasonable for a 1,500-unit dairy proposed by Larson Dairy. Although the town merely restated the state's own standards for water protection, plant rotation and restrictions of manure spreading, the Siting Review Board had overruled it. Judge Welker declared that the board had acted "beyond its powers"; his ruling is now under appeal.
The Farm Bureau's Zimmerman downplays the impact of this ruling, saying it involved specific circumstances not likely to be found in other cases. But the judge's decision is likely to further encourage anti-CAFO forces, which over the last year have been springing up across the state.
"It seems like every CAFO is running into resistance around the state now," says Schultz of Family Farm Defenders.
Anti-CAFO campaigns are even cropping up in formerly politically placid areas like Viroqua and Taylor County. Mary Lippert, a veteran member of Family Farm Defenders, says that's remarkable given people's reluctance to engage in such battles.
"Pretty much everyone wants to be good neighbors, and you don't want to get into conflicts," she says. "Your natural instinct is to have a community and be friendly and talk to your neighbors rather than say, 'What you're doing is wrong.'"
One emerging concern is that factory farms pose public health risks.
World Health Organization experts are investigating whether the swine flu outbreak occurred on a giant 990,000-hog factory farm operated in part by U.S.-based Smithfield Foods near Peyote, Mexico. According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, "Clouds of flies emanate from the lagoons where [the farm] discharges the fecal waste from its hog barns - as well as air pollution that has already caused an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town."
Smithfield has said there is no evidence to connect its operation to the swine flu outbreak. But a 2004 Government Accounting Office study clearly cited the possibility of CAFOs posing a threat of transferring illness to humans:
"Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been transferred from animals to humans, and many of the studies we reviewed found that this transference poses significant risks for human health."
The American Public Health Organization, after reviewing more than 40 scientific reports about health problems associated with CAFOs, has called for an outright moratorium on them.
A 2008 report funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded: "The current industrial farm animal production system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals."
The Union of Concerned Scientists, World Health Organization and American Medical Association have reached similar conclusions. And the Infectious Diseases Society of America and American Academy of Pediatrics have urged closer scrutiny of antibiotics used on factory farms.
Zimmerman concedes that concerns about antibiotic use are fueling anti-CAFO sentiment. But, he asks, "Are CAFOs using more antibiotics? I don't know." He adds that the use of antibiotics is "not just an issue for CAFOs" but for all kinds of farms.
In January, nearly 700 people showed up for a public hearing to debate the 8,300-cow Rosendale dairy proposed for Fond du Lac County, between Waupaca and Oshkosh. Plans for the expansion are moving forward, but attorney Saul says adding to the current limit of about 4,150 cattle will require a modified permit and a new round of public comment.
There will be plenty. According to Russ Tooley of the local opposition group Centerville CARES, the Rosendale expansion, when completed, would generate as much waste as a city of 75,000 people.
Barbara Pandolfo, director of public affairs for Milksource, which manages Rosendale and two other farms, counters that local farmers actually need more manure to fertilize their crops than Rosendale can provide. "We supply only 10% of the need in our region," she says. "So farmers must go out and buy chemical-based fertilizers to help make up the difference."
Rosendale, says Pandolfo, goes to great lengths to avoid polluting wells and the water table. "We're very careful in protecting the environment as much as our cows and our whole operation," she says. "But there's a lot of misinformation because they [CAFOs] are relatively new to Wisconsin."
In the future, the people of Wisconsin may have the chance to become much more familiar with them.
Is Dane digester a boon for bigger farms?
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a longtime environmentalist, is pushing for the phased-in development of two manure digesters that, she says, would reduce the problem of odors and the leaching of animal wastes into the lake system surrounding Madison.
She's lined up $1.2 million in county funds, $6.6 million in state funds. The cost of the first digester, planned for Waunakee, is estimated at $18 million.
The digesters would reduce the air- and water-quality problems posed particularly by large waste lagoons from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
In theory, all area farmers, large and small, would have access to the digesters, which will process the manure and convert it to energy. But John Peck of the Madison-based Family Farm Defenders argues that only large farmers have a need for the digesters, which he believes would encourage the spread of CAFOs in Dane County.
Falk, in a response letter, called Peck "one of my heroes" but begged to differ with his analysis.
"Dane County has 400 dairy farms, with about 125 cows the average size herd," she wrote. "We want them [small farmers] to be farming forever despite tremendous growth pressures. We have less than 10 large [CAFO] farms, and I don't see more likely because of the price of land."
Falk, noting that Dane was the only one of the state's 72 counties to ban the spreading of manure in the winter, said the digesters will protect the lakes from runoff and provide a source of clean energy. Plus they will add "good, high-paying construction jobs" for construction and maintenance.
John Ikerd, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri's School of Agriculture, sides with Peck. He believes the benefits of manure digesters and methane generation serve to "distract from the more important threats posed by CAFOs, which are significant public health risks."
Editor's note: This article mentioned that Roger Bybee's efforts to get answers from the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association executive director Laurie Fischer and and information director Peggy S. Dierickx proved futile. Actually, Ms. Dierickx left the employ of the Dairy Business Association during this period, and was involved only in initial contacts. She was ultimately not responsible for the difficulties we had getting information.