State ag groups call for halt of livestock farm siting rule changes

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Groups say changes would damage farmers as well as supporting businesses in the ag industry.

Ag industry groups from across Wisconsin are calling for the state's ag oversight agency to scrap proposed changes affecting the local approval of new or expanding livestock facilities.

During a press conference at the state capitol, the groups—representing farms across the state as well as ag-related businesses in the livestock and dairy industry—say changes to ATCP 51 may force some farms out of business, with the ripple effect harming businesses supported by the farm community from agricultural consultants and supply cooperatives to manufacturers of animal feed and health products.

“The negative impacts of the proposed rule revisions — which will without a doubt stymie further growth of livestock agriculture in Wisconsin — will be felt not just by livestock producers,” the 11 groups said in jointly written comments. “Left unchanged, this proposed rule could negatively affect hundreds of thousands of jobs in this state.”

Under Wisconsin’s livestock facility siting law, local governments do not have to require permits, but if they choose to do so they must abide by the standards and procedures set forth in this package of rules.

The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection hosted 12 sessions across the state this summer, gathering testimony from stakeholders and the public on the proposed rule changes. 

The state siting law, which gives the agency the authority to create these rules, was passed in 2004 to provide uniform local regulation for new and expanding livestock facilities. As part of the law, DATCP is required to review the rules every four years.

The DATCP Board is scheduled to get an update on the hearings at a meeting Sept. 19. The hearings generated heated and emotional testimony at times.

The group, comprised of Cooperative Network, Dairy Business Association, FS GROWMARK, Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and Wisconsin Pork Association, listed several concerns ranging from the process DATCP used to develop the proposal, including disregarding or all together excluding farmers’ input, to drastic changes to setbacks that would be unworkable in rural Wisconsin.

"The livestock facility siting law helped our dairy community stabilize and grow after years of decline. It also gave local governments a useful tool to regulate these facilities. The current law is working. The changes would undermine the rule’s effectiveness, hurt Wisconsin farmers and send the message that we don’t want modern dairy farms in our state,” said Tom Crave, president, Dairy Business Association.

John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer, executive director, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said the state's dairy industry has faced a host of challenges over the past four years from trade instability and labor shortage and adverse growing conditions that have wiped out profitability for many farms.

"Changes to livestock siting must take into account these financial stressors, and offer dairy producers a chance to succeed and grow, or we will jeopardize one of the state’s backbone economies,” Umhoefer said.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance which represents regulated dairy farms in Wisconsin said the current livestock siting law was the result of months of negotiation among livestock agriculture, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association.

"The end result was a compromise with bipartisan support," said Cindy Leitner, president of the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, which represents large, regulated farms. "DATCP staff ignored suggestions from livestock agriculture and instead is proposing to put existing CAFO operations at significant financial risk at a time they can least afford.”

Officials from Cooperative Network and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation spoke out against the impact of proposed setbacks. The 2006 rule set up a minimum 350-foot minimum distance between manure pits on farms with 500 or more animals and neighbors' property lines. If a local government permits farms it must apply the state standards. So far 134 local governments have imposed the standards, according to DATCP figures.

Things changed in April when a DATCP advisory committee concluded a 350-foot minimum doesn't protect residences, schools and other high-use areas such as playgrounds from odors.

Under the proposal, new farms with at least 500 animals as well as farms looking to expand to at least 500 animals to place manure storage facilities between 600 feet and 2,500 feet from neighbors' property lines depending on the size of the herd.

Farms could reduce the setback by taking steps to mitigate the odor, such as using anaerobic digesters and injecting manure into the ground rather than spreading it.

“(Setbacks) would be a massive shift in the way farms are sited," said Jennifer Wickman, government affairs director of Cooperative Network. "Variances are not the answer. They would be a step backward, putting farmers in the same spot they were prior to the livestock siting law: dealing with a patchwork of different regulations and attitudes toward farming across the state.”

Sara Walling, administrator of DATCP's agricultural resource management division, said the department doesn't want to run anyone out of Wisconsin. She stressed that the changes would apply only to new farms and farmers looking to expand—fewer than 1% of livestock operations in the state.

“This doesn’t impact a single facility until a local government chooses to adopt it,” Walling told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden.

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden refuted the groups’ messaging and pointed to the bigger picture of what is happening in Wisconsin agriculture.

“We’ve already got an oversupply problem in the dairy industry,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union. “Further expansion of our biggest farms is like throwing gasoline on a fire.”

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte said the proposed revisions are not compatible with modern farming

"They will stifle the growth of our agriculture economy in Wisconsin,” Holte said.

Jim Holte, Wisconsin Farm Bureau President

The group said the livestock siting law — intended to create fair and uniform standards ­— dictates that the rules must be, among other things, practical, science-based, objective and designed to promote the growth of the industry balanced with environmental protections.

"The proposed revisions clearly fail to meet these directives," the group stated.

Senator Steve Nass, Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules spoke out against major revisions to the rule.

"It would be a terrible mistake for DATCP to formally submit their current version of rule changes to the Legislature. Instead, the department should scrap their current process and begin anew, this time seeking to work cooperatively with the widest representation of Wisconsin’s agricultural community," Nass said in a news release.

WFU Government Relations Director Kara O’Connor said DATCP is currently doing exactly what the Livestock Siting Law contemplated, which was to make periodic and substantive changes to these rules with the benefit of Technical Committee recommendations.

"There are parts of the existing rules that are outdated, unworkable, and contrary to the available science, and frankly it’s troubling to see some of our fellow agriculture groups defending the indefensible," she said.

Kara O'Connor

Todd Richmond of the Associated Press contributed to this report.