Crawford Stewardship Project works to protect the environment of Crawford County and neighboring regions from threats of polluting and extractive industries, to promote sustainable land use, environmental justice, and local control of natural resources



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“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

"CAFOs are only profitable because so much of the cost and damage is externalized onto the environment, neighbors and wildlife. The monitoring, supervision, clean-up, restitution, fines are not happening, thus the true cost of CAFOs never find the way onto the balance books." Talking point from the CAFO Conference.


garvey hightower picture
April 5, 2008 Jim Hightower, left, with Ed Garvey at the conference in Madison

"Environmental Impacts of Large Livestock Operations"

The goals of this conference were:
Educate participants about the threats to clean air, clean water, and public health posed by industrial livestock facilities; inspire participants to envision a future that values sustainable agriculture, local economic vitality, and livable communities; and empower participants to join a growing state-wide network of farmers, property owners and activists committed to fighting the power of the industrial agriculture lobby.

Highlights Included:
An introduction into the threats posed by livestock operations to clean water and public health; an overview of Wisconsin's Livestock Facility Siting Law and how it paves the way for more CAFOs; panel discussion with citizens just like you who have faced CAFOs in their communities; and noted progressive speakers Jim Hightower, Mike McCabe, and Jim Goodman.

As part of the conference, there was highlighting the work of several local advocacy groups, including:
The Valley Stewardship Network, The Crawford Stewardship Project, Green-Rock Citizens for Clean Water, and Family Farm Defenders.

Notes from the CAFO Conference

Madison, WI. - April 5th, 2008
Mark L. Taylor - RoundRiver Institute LLC
P.O. Box 35 / Genoa, WI. 54632-0035 / (608) 483-2730

The following are a few of the major points regarding CAFOs that were covered during the CAFO conference that might prove helpful to you. I don't have direct contact information for many of the speakers but it shouldn't be too hard to track them down, if needed.

Bill Hafs - Brown County Land Conservation Department: Northeast Wisconsin has the highest concentration of dairy CAFOs in the state, with more scheduled to come on line. He reports they have lots of applications in process. Hafs reports March '08 was not a good month for Brown County, they had two of the biggest manure spills on record.

He reports that some manure storage facilities have been used for industrial and commercial waste, in violation of regs.

Hafs says that given the political realities and the lack of meaningful state help they have been trying to emphasize voluntary compliance through by tightening up on repeat offenders, refusal to comply with standards, public health danger and operators not getting permits. Brown County double charges application fees if someone goes ahead without obtaining a permit.

They are also trying to get farmers to see that good regulations and compliance with those regulations lowers their exposure to liability. Hafs stresses he is not anti-agriculture, noting that if land goes into development water quality suffers more. The challenge is to get the farmers to work together to maintain good practices to preserve water quality.

With the cost of fertilizer going up, Hafs is hopeful the farmers begin to see the manure as more valuable and they will be careful in how they manage it. If a bunch of manure gets loose into a stream that is fertilizer they may need to replace with expensive synthetic fertilizer.

Brown County is looking for ways to commercialize the manure waste. They are exploring having a company set up a plant that would turn the waste into nutrient rich pellets that could then be used on soil to dissolve slowly. The pellets could be sold commercially, generating income and isolating runaway waste problems. He, and others during the day, also said manure methane digester systems could be a potential source of renewable energy production. The digester technology is promising, but, it apparently is pretty expensive, but then again, imagine the value of locally cited renewable energy sources?

He, along with others, really warned against focusing on and getting hung up on the animal welfare issues. While certainly it presents a moral concern, there currently are no useful state laws governing animals in this situation. That may indeed be something bad, but Hafs and a number of other veterans of this battle say it becomes a needless distraction from the work that needs doing.

Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign: This is a great organization. They run an extensive data base of all the state legislators and their collection of campaign contributions from both in-state and out-of-state individuals and corporations. Now you can quickly see who is paying your representative to do what.

When you get a chance, check out their web site: www.wisdc.org

Though he grew up on a small family diary farm, McCabe approached the CAFO topic from the perspective of campaign finance reform and political corruption of the system. He stressed that because of the influence of money the balance of the entire legislative, executive and, now, judicial branches are now tilted far from family farms to large corporatized farming.

"The transformation of our political system has occurred in a single generation," McCabe notes, leading to, "A radical transformation."

He focused mostly on the Wisconsin Commerce Department which has a clear pattern of funneling grants, loans and subsidies to those who donate the most money to politicians. In general, the large donors got 8X as much benefit from the Commerce Department as non-donors. When it comes to the ag industry, however the disparity went to 10X. Only 1 of every 1,000 Wisconsin farmers benefit from Commerce Department support.

Rubbing salt in the wounds, even though the corporations are getting more tax payer money the supposedly required oversight does not happen. Audits are never done. Quarterly reports are incomplete. Site visits never happen. As with the DNR, there is no reason to expect the Commerce Department will hold corporate ag at all responsible.

Jim Goodman - Organic farmer and Food & Society Policy Fellow: In the 80's Goodman actually tried to follow the "large is better" approach, but got out of it because of the cost, stress and what it did to the animals and the land. He and his brother do organic milk and some meat.

He really wanted people to understand the vast majority of farmers want to do a good job and do care about the environment and the way food is raised. They also want to support their families - an increasingly difficult job in the current economy and with a forecast of ever rising fuel and fertilizer costs.

Goodman said the rising cost of farming is going to put twin pressures on ag. The first is to go big to benefit from economies of scale. The second is that the "1,500-mile supply line for our food" will become unsustainable, which will be an opportunity for local, smaller scale production. Both are going to happen.

He warns against automatically believing the "organic" label ensures anything. There are, he notes, "organic" CAFOs out west. (I got an e-mail from Mark Kastel today. He is out west investigating this very issue as I write.)

The challenge will be to provide farmers with workable alternatives.

From a farmer's perspective Goodman cited the following incentives to the spread of CAFOs:

  • What has, up to now, been a cheap supply of grain.
  • Lack of meaningful DNR oversight and enforcement of environmental law.
  • Cheap labor.
  • The disconnection consumers have from the land and from farms.
  • People purchase food based on price, so production costs need to be kept down.
  • Increasing corporate control of the nation's food processing, transportation, marketing structure. A lot of places won't even bother to deal with small, local producers forcing farmers to go big or quit.
  • Complete lack of individual, consumer and small producer voice in the legislative process.
  • Large retailers - like Wal-Mart - put the squeeze on producers.

He noted a few other realities:

  • On average the nation has a 12-week stockpile of grain and an 8-week stockpile of corn reserves.
  • Corn is going for $6 a bushel. Months ago it was $4.
  • He noted in England there was an outcry against "tethered pork" - pigs kept confined. A law was passed, the hogs set free and everyone immediately switched over to buying cheaper Danish - non-tethered - pork.

Dr. Maureen Muldoon - Professor of Geology at UW-Oshkosh
Dr. Muldoon has done a lot of field work in Door County and some in nearby Kewanee. Her specialty is tracking underwater movement through karst formations.

She gave a great overview on karst geology, which is defined as a landscape characterized by dissolving carbonate rock (ie limestone, gypsum) and presence of sinkholes, caves and lots of underground drainage. All rain and snow melt is slightly acidic and it is that fact that weakens and erodes the bedrock.

Approximately 40% of the land east of the Mississippi is karst. Southwest Wisconsin, of course is filled with karst.

Karst is characterized by both horizontal bed and vertical fracturing; kind of like a Rubik's Cube. While surface soils, clays, wetlands, meadows can filter out some contaminants, it is essential to understand that once contaminated water hits the bedrock there is absolutely nothing in that fragmented karst bedrock that is going to attenuate, or filter out or hold back the contaminants.

Anything less than about 15 feet of soil cover means the underlying karst in vulnerable to pollution.

The underground movement of rainwater and surface contaminants can occur quickly. She was able to track movement that went "10's of feet" per day to "100's of feet". She cited a number of examples of where a single source point of contamination was broadly distributed in a matter or days - sometimes even hours. The timing of liquid manure application is a significant factor. Winder spreading on frozen ground is the worst.

Muldoon was one of the authors of the "Northeast Wisconsin Karst Task Force", which issued it's final report in February of '07. She is opposed to the idea of some kind of statewide karst policy simply because conditions can vary so widely not just from section to section of the state, but within a small geographic area.

There has been no similar karst study done for SW Wisconsin. Muldoon stressed the state DNR does not fund this kind of research. All the funding from the state has pretty well been choked off. Yet another example of the DNR not being of any real use on the CAFO issue.

Gordon Stevenson - Section Chief, Runoff Management Section, Wisconsin DNR. (608) 267-2759. Gordon.stevenson@dnr.state.wi.us
This guy was a trip. As painful as it was, this was for me, the best part of the day in that any thought, hope or delusion I had that DNR could be of help on this issue or for citizens whose wells have been contaminated by CAFO operations went up in smoke.

He described terms like "factory" or "industrial" farming as "villainous perceptions". He downplayed the active role of CAFO pollution, stating they were responsible for "only" about 10% of the ground and surface water pollution.

He notes each of the smallest (1,000 Animal Unit) CAFO generates an equivalent amount of waste as a small sized city about the size of Onalaska or Sun Prairie. Using a rough calculation that each cow = 18 people, in terms of waste he said we have the equivalent of 22 million people in cow /livestock waste. The actual human population of the state is a tad over 5.5 million.

Stevenson said there is a 10-15% "unmet dairy need" in the state, so we can expect a lot more CAFOs. He notes that applications are "a bit of a tsunami now".

Several other speakers during the day who spoke of the contamination of their land and wells, attempts to goose the DNR into action, moves to get compensation for ill children or even attempts to get DNR funding for some basic monitoring addressed Stevenson during the day with barely contained anger and contempt. It is clear, the DNR has been essentially and completely co-opted by the ag industry and will be an obstacle, not an impartial or, one could say, ethical partner.

As sad as that is to acknowledge, it's best to acknowledge it and find ways to work around BAD-NR (Big Ag's DNR). David Chakoian MD Dave reviewed medical literature on the risks of respiratory infection and illness from hog farms specifically. Most of the research of on and offsite CAFO airborne infection has been on hog operations.

While given the impossibility of having the gold standard of double-blind research studies (ie. you know if you live next to a hog farm) he says the research is clear and unequivocal that there is a direct relationship between such facilities and lung infections of farm workers, neighbors and, in some cases, schools nearby such facilities.

"We don't have the double-blind studies, but there is a strong line of evidence that is consistent," he stressed.

There is a lot of research to show that chronic upper respiratory illness of farm workers in the building runs at 25%.

There is also a lot of non-allergic reaction asthma to be found in these workers and people near the farms. He noted one study that, though he admitted there were a few minor problems with the way the study was done found that within a 3-mile radius of a hog CAFO 25% of those who lived close enough to frequently smell the farm developed asthma. Of those who lived beyond the smell the incidence was 10%.

Biological dangers lies in bacteria, anti-biotic run-off, endotoxins, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and some 400 compounds found to be associated with hog farms. Much of this stuff travels on dust.

The actual level of risk of CAFO incubated epidemics is "speculation" at this point, he said.

Dave emphasized that, "These things work synergistically."

Russ Tooley: Centerville CARES (Citizens for Air, River and Environmental Solutions)

Russ was a wealth of information and inspiration on citizen activism and is frequently a coach to other groups, like the folks down in Crawford County, who have benefited from his advice.

He emphasized the need for citizen groups to get their facts straight and be able to back up everything they say. "Things are bad enough that you never have to exaggerate," he joked.

They have put together an extensive system of water monitoring and work with an environmental lawyer in dealing with Maple Leaf Dairy. Their experience really underscores the need for a corps of volunteer citizen water monitors and testers, like VSN has been organizing.

He, along with nearly every other speaker, emphasized the need to speak of what you are in favor of. They hammer away on the goal and value of "clean water", "clean air". Who, he notes, can argue with that! He was also cautious about not getting sucked into the animal rights issue. He notes that is one tactic the diary's try to use to marginalize their opposition.

He says Centerville CARES focuses on the bad apples among the farmers and really tries to build alliances with the majority of farmers who do good work. Judy Treml - Town of Luxembourg, WI Wow, she gave a moving, detailed account of the damage done to her family's rural home from a manure runoff. One of her kids was hospitalized with e-coli and faced three possibilities:

  • The medication and treatment would work and her daughter would get better.
  • The medical treatment would help a little or not a lot and her child would
  • eventually get better, or,
  • Her daughter would die.

She was nicer to the DNR guy than I would have been, but she made it clear Mr. Stevenson and his agency had no real urgency in addressing the issue and just wanted to facilitate a quick financial settlement which - it sounded like - barely compensated the Tremls for the costs they incurred from the CAFO operation.

She and her husband both grew up on farms and she really challenged Stevenson that the CAFOs really are irresponsible and that the state agency has abandoned individual families.

A major talking point that came up in various forms throughout the day: While CAFOs clearly are profitable, they are only profitable because so much of the cost and damage is externalized onto the environment, neighbors and wildlife. The monitoring, supervision, clean-up, restitution, fines are not happening, thus the true cost of CAFOs never find the way onto the balance books.

Quote of the Day:
When commenting on our cowboy president's nice looking cowboy hat Jim Hightower said that it was, indeed, a splendid example of high price headwear - probably straight from Neiman Marcus.
"A $1,000 hat on a ten cent head," Hightower noted.