Big Farms, Big Problems

By Will Stahl

Over the nearly twenty-five years I have lived in Wisconsin, I have seen Lake Winnebago and the Fox River grow increasingly unpleasant. As the summer progresses algae forms and begins to collect in great cheesy mats wherever the wind pushes it, and then it rots and stinks. It seems to happen earlier every year.

Now the lake always had some algae, but it rarely became offensive, and my children and I swam in the lake all summer. By August they’d come out a little green, but it didn’t discourage them much. One summer we got those toxic rings of blue-green algae coming in, and we made them stay out then, but that was rare. Nowadays the thick green sludge keeps all of us out, almost all the time.

During these same decades, CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), giant animal factories, have proliferated in the northeast Wisconsin, some of them upstream of the big lake. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Remember a few years ago when phosphorous was banned from lawn fertilizer? Given the number of lawns that drain off into the lake that should have made some difference. Things have only gotten worse.

In last month’s SCENE I gave a general overview of the changes that have swept over Wisconsin’s dairy industry over the last few decades. These were brought into focus for me by attendance at a November 16 conference in Sturgeon Bay: “The Rural Health Dilemma,” subtitled “a forum about the impact of modern agriculture on health and quality of life.”

The first speaker was Gordon Stevenson, the self-described “chief manure cop for a quarter century,” until his recent retirement from the DNR. Since leaving the agency, he has been speaking out about what he sees as the increasing threat from animal manure caused by changes in the dairy industry.

As I wrote last month, the traditional image of the dairy farm as a family operation, with cows grazing in the fields all day and the kids pitching in to help with the chores, no longer describes much of the dairy production in Wisconsin.

But the image––as depicted on state license plates––is strong and the long ingrained belief in the dairy farm as benign, healthful and even beautiful allows barriers to the control of these animal factories. They cannot really be called “farms” in the traditional sense, because they often grow no crops and are not worked by the owners. Their workers are hirelings, their animals generally don’t ever see the sun or fresh grass, and for our purposes here, they are responsible for myriad environmental problems as well as bringing an industrial ugliness to rural lands.

Mr. Stevenson tried to put it in perspective for us. One cow produces the waste of 18 humans. An 8,000-cow farm produces about the same amount of waste as Green Bay.

Wisconsin has several that large and one in Adams County has 12,000 cows.

Together, all the cows of the state produce as much waste as Tokyo (36 million people) and Mexico City (21 million) combined.

If that is incomprehensible, consider the concrete effects of this much manure being spread across the land as liquid slurry, the usual method CAFOs use. If the greatest care is not used, manure can end up in the ground water, especially in the “karst” regions of the state, which comprise much of eastern Wisconsin from Door County down. Karst is characterized by fractured limestone bedrock through which water percolates with ease; this bedrock is easily seen at High Cliff State Park, exposed along the escarpment. Note when you are there, the water seeping out of the hillside below the cliffs. It came from above and down through the rocks.

Owners of private wells in Door County have reported tap water that is brown and smells of manure. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 59 wells, 15% of those tested, showed fecal coliform levels above the level safe for human consumption. Problems are similar in the Central Sands region of the state, where the soils coarse sand and very porous. Water with manure can easily soak down to the water table.

Manure runoff has been responsible for frequent fish kills. Stevenson said he saw at least two a year in recent years. It is also to blame for eutrophication, those algae blooms mentioned earlier, that in decay, suck the oxygen from the water and make it unable to sustain life. Local people in Kewaunee County told me that many of their creeks were trout streams, but since the coming of the CAFOs, no trout are left there.

At a Senate hearing considering the runoff rules Stevenson and others worked so hard to put in place, owners of two businesses, a marina and a restaurant, located along Lake Petenwell, spoke to issue of how the algae was affecting them. People would drive up, one of them said, get out of their cars and smell the algae. They’d get back in their cars and drive away. Many tourist businesses in central and eastern Wisconsin have been similarly affected.

Those of you who have crossed the Trestle Trail bridge in the summer have probably noticed the cove by the east end which collects the algae blown across the lake. You probably hurried by, especially on hot, still days. It is truly foul.

Manure runoff-generated algae have caused a local dead zone in Green Bay at the mouth of the Fox River. Algae from the Midwest have caused a state-sized dead zone beyond the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico.

Air quality is another issue, and one the state has not begun to deal with. Farming is subject to no meaningful air pollution regulations. Part of this is based on the “Right to Farm” laws passed when city folks started moving to the country and complained (and sued) about the odor and noise the pre-existing farms.

CAFO’s have taken advantage of these as they have moved in one locality after another. The odor of their manure “lagoons,” which store millions of gallons of liquefied manure and especially of the manure being sprayed by the truckload on fields makes neighbors’ homes uninhabitable and valueless. Again and again, I have heard reports of people who are not able to go outside on many days and find the stench soaking into their cars and houses. Many sell out to the CAFOs and leave.

Now CAFOs are trying to get permits to do spray irrigation with liquid manure, using those center-pivot irrigators you may have seen spraying water over corn and potato fields. Given the current regulatory environment, it is likely they will succeed, at least in some places.

Manure stench is beyond unpleasant; it can be very unhealthy. It contains toxins such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Studies are starting to point to health effects of living near these farms, and I’ll discuss that more next month.

You may have heard people say that all the CAFO’s need to do is install digesters to draw methane gas from the manure and use that for fuel. Problem solved. As Stevenson said, that process removes only one type of molecule from all the substances in the waste.

It reduces waste volume not at all and does nothing to get rid of antibiotics, heavy metals and other toxins. The digesters shown me in Kewaunee County were emitting clouds of hydrogen sulfide gas, evidenced by the corroded roofs of their buildings.

Earlier I mentioned the issue of pollution of ground water, but CAFOs cause another water issue: the amount of it they use. An 8,000-cow dairy will use 90 million gallons of groundwater a year. To obtain this amount, they drill high capacity (high-cap) wells, defined as those drawing more than 100,000 gallons a day.

This is especially a problem in the Central Sands where groundwater supplies were already being depleted by water drawn for irrigating crops. Lake levels are dropping and streams are drying up.

Now Big Ag allies in the legislature are trying to push a bill that would prevent the DNR from considering the impact of already existing wells when considering a permit for a new one. It would make permits almost impossible to deny and ignores the consequences for neighbors’ wells and lake levels. Many lakes in the sand country have been dropping for years. People who bought lake front property at places like Pleasant Lake are now looking at a long reach of land between them and the water. And what water is left is likely thick and green with algae.

This attempt to force the DNR to permit wells no matter what is typical of the efforts the current governor and legislature have been making to kneecap environmental protections of all kinds. In the areas of metallic mining, sand mining, wetlands, shoreline protection and farm regulation, the Republican-led state government has been doing everything it can to champion profit over a clean and safe environment. And not everyone’s profits, mostly only those of the biggest businesses.

The governor has abolished the DNR’s enforcement division, stating that can be handled by the Justice Department. In their spare time, no doubt. The state only has enough inspectors to check out each CAFO once every five years. Permits are issued when paperwork is completed, with no field inspection at all.

Since the state government won’t protect the air, water and people, local groups are forming all around the state to make the case for a clean and safe environment. Organizations such as Kewaunee Cares, Centerville Cares, Family Farm Defenders, Clean Water Action Council, Door County Environmental Council, People Empowered to Protect the Land, and Friends of the Central Sands, as well as more traditional environmental organizations such as Midwest Environmental Advocates, Wisconsin Environment, League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club are working to inform the public and pressure the legislature into slowing the mad rush to animal factory agriculture.

Next month, in the final installment of this series, I’ll take a look at the direct and indirect health effects of CAFOs on animals and people.

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