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MADISON - Consistency in regulatory positions, action on chronic wasting disease and the regulation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were on the minds of board members at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as they spoke with new Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole last week.

Cole’s appearance was first on the agenda when the DATCP board met May 16 in Madison. He pledged to work with DATCP on matters ranging from CWD to water quality. “I’m excited about what the future holds if we lock arms together.”

Board Chair Miranda Leis said she is concerned about consistency in DNR’s regulatory stance, with one farm appearing to be regulated one way while another farm is regulated in another – even in the same region of the state. “They seem to be playing by a different rulebook,” she said.

Cole noted that in the last eight years, Wisconsin has added 110 CAFOs to the landscape while at the same time the agency lost staff members who were needed to help with state permits and regulations. “If it doesn’t make sense, we have to do something different. Let’s find a way to bring people into compliance,” he said, adding that he wants to make sure the environmental community is at the table to talk about common sense approaches.

Board member Dean Strauss, who is a dairy farmer, said farmers want to do the right thing. “When you, as a CAFO, have a permit that’s expired and you had everything in on time, and that goes on a website as an expired permit, that’s very frustrating.

“The general perception is that we’re doing whatever we want,” Strauss said, “and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Cole, who spent 27 years in Public Works in Milwaukee, said the people who do the wrong things are easy to spot. “Most folks don’t wake up in the morning wanting to do bad things,” he added.

Strauss told Cole that it’s going to be important, going forward, to have a dialogue between the two agencies.

Cole was appointed to the state’s Natural Resources Board in 2007, by then-Governor Jim Doyle. Among the state’s many agencies, only the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection have citizen boards to help shape and approve policies within the agency.

In 2013, then-Governor Scott Walker re-appointed Cole to the NR board; he served as chairman from 2013-2014.

Cole had served as city forester and parks supervisor in the city of Milwaukee and before that he was parks superintendent in St. Louis. Cole earned a degree in forestry and was an FFA member in southwest Michigan, where he grew up surrounded by orchards filled with cherries, apples, peaches and pears – grown to supply metropolitan Milwaukee and Chicago.

His FFA experience, he said, “helped me arrive to this chair.”

In his brief tenure as DNR Secretary so far, Cole said he had traveled around the state and has been encouraged by progress he’s seen with farmer-led conservation groups, like Yahara Pride in southern Wisconsin, which partners with the Clean Lakes Alliance. As this group and others like it promote continuous, living cover crops, along with no-till practices, scientific research is showing improved soil health, he told members of the DATCP board.

Watershed improvements

At a watershed conference earlier this spring, Yahara Pride Farm’s resource manager Dennis Frame, said programs in the watershed, which covers parts of Dane, Columbia and Rock counties, have already made strides in reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and soil loss on participating farms.

What comes next, Frame said, is looking at projects to determine where farmers could make further improvements that may have incremental conservation benefits, even though they may not help the farm’s bottom line. “We have to figure out how much we could do and how much we could pay farmers to do it. There’s a bigger benefit to society for some incremental changes that may not help the farm that much,” Frame said.

One pilot project in the watershed, which includes a small number of farms, is working to establish more information on cost and challenges to producers in implementing additional conservation practices. It will target farms that are already achieving losses below regulatory standards for nitrogen and sediment loss and work with them to establish targets for further reductions.

The project will also try to identify fields where changes could have the most impact on improving soil and water quality – two goals of the farmer-led initiative.

Clean Drinking Water

Cole told board members that Governor Tony Evers has set 2019 as the “Year of Clean Drinking Water” and has proposed $70 million for initiatives to help improve water quality in the state. Some bonding money has been designated for improving water systems in cities; other funding will hire five new water quality scientists at DNR, along with five more staffers to work on backlogged paperwork on the state’s CAFOs.

The governor’s plan calls for a five-fold increase – from $200,000 to $1 million annually – in resources to clean up contaminated water. The state will contribute $75,000 to a geology and groundwater study in southwest Wisconsin to determine levels and causes of groundwater contamination.

“Legislators are concerned about clean water,” said Cole. “They have heard families testifying over groundwater concerns from around the state. This legislature and this governor will get something done on clean water.”

In an effort to get the two agencies to collaborate, Cole and DATCP Secretary designee Brad Pfaff are making plans to get their two boards to meet together in the coming months to talk about areas where the two agencies need better coordination on regulations.

CWD programs

One of those areas, brought up by DATCP board members, is the deer disease called chronic wasting disease or CWD. Cole said the state has spent $52 million on surveillance and testing in the years since the disease was discovered in the wild deer herd, and so far it has continued to spread.

The DNR is responsible for CWD programs in wild deer and DATCP is responsible for regulations related to captive deer farms. At times state deer farmers have been caught in between programs from the two agencies.

The DNR Secretary said one thing that is needed is a quick test for the disease. (Currently the only way to test for the disease is a microscopic exam of tissue from a dead animal.) One of his first goals, in this area, Cole said, is to determine who is doing what in terms of combating the disease. He learned that Michigan has allocated $5 million to Michigan State to develop a quick test and he hopes Wisconsin can be “surgical” in its approach to dealing with the disease.

“We have to talk about testing,” he told board members. “Hunters took 400,000 deer and we had 17,000 tests. We hope to have better answers shortly.”

In recent years the DATCP board has heard testimony from distraught deer farmers in the state who told them that the state’s CWD strategy would put them out of business. One of their concerns was a requirement to put in double fencing on their deer farms.

Cole said it is “hard to force people to spend money when there’s no proof” it’s going to solve a problem. “I hope we can still have a cervid deer farm industry in Wisconsin,” adding that he and Secretary designee Pfaff have had conversations on the subject.

“When we have an industry that is regulated by two bureaucracies, we probably should evolve those bureaucracies, not let them run amok,” Cole said.

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