Tipping the ‘sacred cow’: Report calls out big-money agribusiness interests, pushes for CAFO moratorium

cafo.phpBy: Danielle Endvick, Country Today, 12/9/2013

A report recently released by the Wisconsin Environment Research and Policy Center, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy group, links more large dairy operations in Wisconsin and the weakening of the state’s clean water standards with big-money agribusiness interests.

Katie Siegner, Wisconsin Environment clean water associate, said the report, “The Power to Pollute,” aims to unearth agribusiness’ political influence in Madison and the impact it has on Wisconsin waterways.

“People don’t realize how much money — millions and millions of dollars — these big agribusiness groups like the Dairy Business Association and the Farm Bureau are spending to lobby the state government in Wisconsin and to make sure the state Legislature and state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection are passing policies that are friendly to big agribusiness and these factory farms,” Siegner said.

According to the report, agribusinesses and related organizations spent more than $4.4 million lobbying the Wisconsin government in the past five years. Lobbying expenditures included almost $200,000 spent by Kraft Foods, more than $800,000 by the Dairy Business Association and more than $1 million by Koch Companies Public Sector (a subsidiary of Koch Industries, a multibillion dollar corporation that sells products and services to large agricultural operations through its other subsidiaries).

The report also notes that since the DNR took charge of overseeing new and expanding dairy farms, the agency has never turned down a permit request nor revoked a permit following pollution standards violations. The DNR issued three violation notices for concentrated animal feeding operations’ animal waste in 2012 — down from 13 in 2011 and 15 in 2010.

Meanwhile, the number of permitted CAFOs has grown from just one in Wisconsin in 1992 to 92 in 2002 and 237 in 2012. CAFOs are defined by

the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined

situations. CAFOs con-gregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area.

Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”

“We’ve found that in the counties with the highest concentration of CAFOs — Kewaunee and Brown counties — a lot of that water pollution can be traced directly to the CAFOs,” Siegner said.

The report recommends a moratorium on CAFO permits until further research on their impact can be conducted. In addition, it suggests DATCP more strictly limit water pollution by better regulating high-capacity well systems; banning aerial manure application and over-application of fertilizers; tightening rules for inspection; punishing repeat or serious offenders; and creating a citizen monitoring system through which citizens can report potential violations.

Laurie Fischer, executive director of the DBA, which was among agribusiness groups targeted in the report, said any potential moratorium on CAFO permits would threaten the dairy industry in Wisconsin.

“A moratorium on CAFOs would result in dairy processing infrastructure dollars leaving the state … since we are already a milk-deficit state, meaning we import milk to meet the demands of our dairy processing industry,” Fischer wrote in an email to The Country Today. “That affects the jobs of cheesemakers, milk haulers, electricians, equipment suppliers and everyone associated with the industry. So a dangerous and irresponsible idea like a ‘CAFO moratorium’ would have far-reaching consequences.”

Political sway

Jim Goodman, who milks 45 cows on his certified organic dairy, Northwood Farm, near Wonewoc and also serves as a board member for Family Farm Defenders, said he would support a CAFO moratorium. Goodman was among panelists who discussed the report in a Dec. 4 teleconference.

“I think before they allow any more CAFOs, they need to see what really is happening with groundwater contamination,” he said.

Goodman said he views CAFOs as both a cause and result of the consolidation that can be seen in agriculture today.

“Everything is getting bigger — the amount of land, machinery,” he said. “As the profit margin drops, the only way to stay in business is economies of scale. There are advantages to size. Throw on top of that the DNR isn’t enforcing regulations on big farms.”

He noted agribusinesses driving the industry want to continue the “bigger is better” trend.

“I don’t think anyone can argue about the sway of political dollars,” he said. “There’s money to be made selling things to farmers. The larger they can push farms to be, the more mechanized, the more money there is to be made.”

Goodman said the justification for industrial agriculture is a misguided notion that it’s done to feed the people of the world, when in reality, much of it feeds animals — which also feed people — and ethanol plants.

“CAFOs have spread because this model is profitable — not necessarily for the farmer or the community but for the grain companies and processors that have basically told farmers how we must farm,” he said.

Lynn Utesch, grass-fed beef farmer and executive board member for Kewaunee CARES, a group advocating for responsible environmental stewardship, said living in Kewaunee County, which has one of the highest concentrations of dairy CAFOs in the state, has given him a firsthand look at the clout agribusiness has and its ability to degrade the environment and communities.

“When the largest CAFOs have direct access to our policymakers, including the secretary of the DNR, who the citizens and small farmers do not have access to, their desires are addressed much faster,” Utesch said.

Though CAFOs are highly regulated, those regulations are minimally enforced, Utesch said.

In Kewaunee County, more than 75 percent of the farmland is enrolled in nutrient-management plans.

“These plans are supposed to be the gold standard to keep groundwater pollution from happening,” Utesch said. “Why then are our groundwaters deteriorating? Why are there no fish in our rivers and streams?”

Long-standing history

The DBA’s Fischer said her organization is not seeking to change Wisconsin’s long-established history of groundwater and environmental protection.

“Every Wisconsin farmer is concerned about our water resources and relies on access to groundwater for their cattle to survive,” Fischer said. “Dairy farms’ wells keep our critical dairy industry producing milk for fluid and cheese production across Wisconsin and the United States.”

Fischer said dairy farmers have received less than 10 percent of all high-capacity well approvals issued by the DNR since 2007.

“The DNR will continue to retain the authority to deny or impose conditions on wells that may impact other resources, and citizens retain all of their rights to pursue claims against well owners that may have affected their property values,” she said.

Fischer said DBA supports Senate Bill 302, which would clarify for farmers the regulatory process when seeking approval for high-capacity wells by providing a clear understanding of requirements of farmers when they apply for permits.

A long reach

Scott Dye, associate with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, gained an up-close education on CAFOs when an 80,000-head hog finishing operation was built next to his family farm in Missouri in 1994.

The problem with CAFOs is that they are self-policing, he said.

“These CAFOs are supposed to be inspected once in a five-year period,” he said, “but it’s mostly complaint-driven.”

Dye said he has traveled around the U.S. sharing the story of what happened in his family, community and state with the fervent hope that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

“The way I see it, this is really a battle for the heart and soul of rural America and what it’s going to look like,” Dye said.

What makes Wisconsin’s situation worrisome is the shallow bedrock of the Central Sands region and fractured bedrock in the northeast portion of the state, where many CAFOs can be found.

“When you’re aerially applying waste on that type of fragile topography, you’re creating serious concerns about drinking water,” Dye said, adding more research needs to be done to fully understand how much phosphorus and nitrogen the land can absorb.

“Because of agribusiness’ influence, the state’s regulatory agencies do little to monitor factory farms, while runoff continues to pour into the state’s waterways, wetlands and drinking water wells,” Dye said. “Without common-sense enforcement, the current unbridled pace of expansion of the state’s mega-dairies is a recipe for environmental disaster.”

At a recent rural health forum in Sturgeon Bay, Gordon Stevenson, former chief runoff management for the DNR, said there are about 100 CAFO pollution elimination discharge permit applications in progress at the DNR, and staff had been urged to process them quickly.

The sacred cow

Dye said he has seen Wisconsin residents struggle with the issue of CAFOs, in part because of the state’s rich dairy history.

“Wisconsin is a state where agriculture is the sacred cow, literally … ” he said. “I think there’s always been a deference to the dairy industry as being a noble profession, something the state has always been proud of. But I’ve been to a lot of these big dairies — it’s nowhere near the experience of living next to a traditional farming operation. These are not your grandfather’s farm.”

Rather than a natural evolution of the industry, the emergence of mega-dairies is a political move by a select few, Dye said.

Goodman said he believes citizens, everyday consumers, will be the ones to put pressure on regulatory agencies.

An improved milk pricing system in the next farm bill would take pressure off farmers to expand too, he said.

“It’s a lot easier for a farmer to make good environmental decisions, good business decisions, good family decisions, if he’s getting paid a fair price,” he said. “Everyone now is fighting to stay in business … . Farmers aren’t bad people. Most want to protect the environment. If they were paid at a point where they didn’t have to milk so many cattle or raise so many pigs, they’d have a good chance to do it.”

Fischer agreed that money is a leading factor contributing to the increasing number of farmers turning to CAFOs.

“Prices have failed to keep up with inflation, producers have had to make difficult decisions … . They could choose to live on less money year after year, find a niche market that pays higher market prices, add more cows or leave the dairy business,” Fischer said. “Farmers have made all of these choices depending on their individual circumstances.”

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