Polk Co. supervisor withdraws another anti-CAFO proposal, will continue pursuing regulation

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Signs proclaim sentiments for and against a proposed livestock facility in Burnett County that would house 26,000 swine and easily be largest hog farm in Wisconsin. Because the facility is proposed for an agricultural field, the state's right-to-farm law would provide it expansive protections against nuisance claims even though it could fundamentally alter the lives of neighbors.

Correction: This piece earlier stated the Dairy Business Association co-signed a letter accusing the Polk County Board of Supervisors of a felony. It was the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance. We regret the error.

After the Polk County Board of Supervisors was threatened with litigation over proposals that would put limitations and a moratorium on large swine farms, another proposal relating to the matter has been withdrawn.

Resolution No. 50-20, proposed by Supt. Amy Middleton of Osceola, went before the county board's Health and Human Services division meeting, where the resolution was withdrawn. The resolution would have directed the Environmental Services division of the county government and the HHS to draft legislation that would address the "negative impacts of CAFOs."

Those impacts written in the withdrawn proposal included increasing nitrogen levels in the county water and recommendations from the American Public Health Administration and National Association of County and City Health Officials that moratoria be placed on CAFOs while continuing research is completed on their full environmental and health effects.

The resolution to renew the moratorium on swine CAFOs in Polk County, which has been active since last year, was narrowly denied through an 8-7 vote, so the moratorium will expire. However, a resolution introducing a conditional use permit on swine CAFOs was passed, but later rescinded after pressure from industry lobbyists and farmers. Supervisors are still attempting to pass some sort of legislation that would limit the presence of CAFOs, swine or not, in the county.

Board chairman Chris Nelson told the Wisconsin State Farmer to "stay tuned" regarding the board's agenda because some supervisors will continue to work on the issue through research and environmental studies. However, Nelson said the search for scientific evidence to support the county's position could take years due to limited funding and access to a study site.

"If you want to say swine CAFOs are dangerous to the community, you need to study the water and the wells around a swine CAFO in Polk County. We don't have any," Nelson said. "That's going to be the big fight and it's going to take years and years and years to work on this. This is not something that's going to be done overnight."

Nelson said a big concern for proponents of the CAFO regulations is the high amount of nitrates in Polk County's water, but it's unclear whether that comes from farming operations in nearby counties or other sources.

Polk County currently does not have any swine CAFOs, instead being mostly a dairy farm community. But a new swine CAFO is being proposed in neighboring Burnett County, which would cost $20 million and house 26,000 hogs. Nelson said several Polk Co. constituents, who live along the border where the CAFO would be located, are concerned about the effect the farm would have on the environment and their own health.

Hogs feed in a pen in a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, on the Gary Sovereign farm in Lawler, Iowa, on Oct. 31, 2018. The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday, June 30, 2022, reversed a longstanding precedent that allowed landowners to sue for damages when a neighboring hog farm causes water pollution or odor problems that affect quality of life. The court concluded, 4-3, that a 2004 decision was wrong.

Since the county does not have any CAFOs itself, it's difficult to be able to execute the proper research that would hold up as scientific evidence under the law, Nelson said. The county has been in communication with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection regarding the legality of the proposals, with the response indicating that the legislation would be illegal under state law unless they brought scientific evidence to the table. While the county could still pass further resolutions as law, they would likely be challenged by industry groups.

Nelson also noted that their proposed ordinance on the conditional use permit was essentially copied verbatim from nearby Bayfield County. He said the township of Eureka in Polk County, an un-zoned township, wanted to use that ordinance for their own town if the county was not going to pass it themselves. 

"Bayfield (County) has their ordinance on their books, and they basically say it's legal because no one challenged it. Polk County said, well, before we're going to pass something like this, we're going to have DATCP review it," Nelson said. "It was clear that the majority of it was not considered legal."

Nelson also expressed concern about misinformation spreading in the county, especially through social media, to support political narratives. He said it's not the first time he's fought misinformation on the agenda of the county board, and it's not the first time he's received threats, either, especially by lobbying or industry groups.

"I get threatened and accused and public comments like that every month. To me, it was just throw it in the box with the rest of them," Nelson said. "For some reason, if you want to do anything in this community, and I don't know if it's different in other places, it seems like the new way is to rally up support, and unfortunately there's a lot of misinformation."

The board was accused of committing a felony if they passed the previous proposals, written in a letter signed by the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Venture Dairy Cooperative and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce back in September. Three supervisors, including Middleton, signed a letter to the Wisconsin Counties Association in response calling the legal threats unfair. Nelson said there's also been protesters from both sides of the issue present at their board meetings.

Nelson said the concerns over CAFOs come from the state of farming now, where he claims "farms have to get bigger to survive." He said many of the people who are outspoken against CAFOs and other large farming operations come from un-zoned townships within the county, which are less protected than other areas because there are no specific rules to determine which land is reserved for business and which land is residential.

"Once they realized these un-zoned townships really didn't have any protection, that's when they started organizing. That's where most of the pressure came from in Polk County. They protested – (at) three or four of our board meetings, we probably had 50-100 people ... protesting for the county to stop the CAFOs from coming."

The county also doesn't have much control over CAFOs deciding to make Polk County their new home though, Nelson noted. He said the "county's hands are tied" at that level and concerned citizens need to talk to their state senator or assembly member because it's regulated by the state.

John Holevoet

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, which voiced opposition to the reso, claims the board has been unwilling to work with farmers to come to a compromise on the issue. He said Middleton and other supervisors are not being truly representative of the county population. Holevoet did express relief at the news of the resolutions being withdrawn once again, hoping that this time the board will invite farmers to join the roundtable.

"It was our desire to see a shift occur from the focus on new regulations to one of actually talking on the issues and collaborating with the farming community," Holevoet said. "That's what other counties have done with a good deal of success."

While he considers it a victory for the time being, Holevoet said he is staying cautious and keeping his eyes open for new activity from Polk County or other counties who take the same approach to large farms. He said the county should instead work on watershed and water quality issues with farmers instead of banning or delaying the building of CAFOs.

"There are issues and challenges that we all face, especially when it comes to environmental quality, water quality, things of that nature, but your farming community is probably your best partner in actually working through some of that," Holevoet said. "They understand ... so you want that at the table."