MILWAUKEE - Lobbyists for a farm group met with Gov. Scott Walker's staff and talked about moving more authority over large farms from the Department of Natural Resources to the agriculture department several months before Walker directed the move be studied in his budget.
John Holevoet, director of government relations for Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, said he and contract lobbyist Bill McCoshen met with a Walker staff member last fall to discuss agricultural issues, including the merits of a larger role for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in regulating the state's largest farms.
Last week, Walker's 2017-19 budget included a directive that the two agencies evaluate moving regulation of large farms out of the DNR.
Officials will have to complete a study by the end of 2018. If the agencies find merit in such a transfer, they must sort through funding and staffing issues and receive approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which now delegates authority over large livestock operations to the DNR.
Environmental groups are wary of such a shift, especially after a state audit last year found numerous shortcomings in the state's wastewater program, which includes concentrated animal feeding operations, also know as CAFOs.
The more immediate need, they said, is for the state to spend more on personnel to regulate large farms, which often produce as much manure as the medium-sized Wisconsin cities. The current annual charge for a CAFO permit is $345. Walker's budget did not call for an increase in fees. By comparison, the largest municipalities in the state pay more than $100,000 a year for a comparable permit.
"Until there is enough staff to inspect and look at permitting of large farms, it doesn't matter where it's housed," said Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group.
CAFOs have come under fire as their numbers and the size of the farms have grown. Environmentalists and residents living near such farms have expressed worries about odor and the potential of manure from thousands of cattle to pollute groundwater and surface water.
"This is exactly the wrong direction that we need to be taking by transferring this to a department whose job it is to promote agriculture rather than an agency whose job it is to protect the environment," Meyer Smith said.
The agriculture department currently regulates aspects of farm operations, including some inspections and oversight of a program that guides manure spreading practices for thousands of farms that are not CAFOs. But the department is also heavily involved in agricultural promotion.
Under state law, the DNR reviews permit applications for new and expanding CAFOs — farms with 700 or more adult cattle — and regulates manure storage and spreading practices. Permitting of new CAFOs is often a contentious affair, with environmental groups challenging new and expanding farms. Reviews and the approval process often take a year or more to complete.
Farm groups say moving some or all regulatory functions to the agriculture department is not far-fetched and that some states now have agriculture agencies oversee CAFOs.
In his meeting with the Walker administration, Holevoet said that he and McCoshen discussed an array of issues, including the possibility of moving the permit process agriculture department. But he said they did not push for all CAFO regulation to be taken away from the DNR.
McCoshen is a long-time lobbyist and served as secretary of the Department of Commerce under Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. An email query to a spokesman for Walker was not returned.
In a joint statement, the two agencies said:
"One of the principles of Governor Walker's budget is making sure government is accountable and responds efficiently and effectively to citizen needs," and that the agencies goal is to make recommendations that "address agricultural interests while protecting the state's water resources."
Holevoet and Paul Zimmerman, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said the impetus for a bigger role for the agriculture department was a legislative audit last summer that was critical of the DNR's handling of the wastewater program.
The audit found high levels of staff turnover in the CAFO program; determined that 17 farms were inspected after their permit was issued; and found only 36 of 1,900 reports that farms were required to submit were filed electronically.