Documentary captures rural Wisconsin's struggle with hog CAFOs

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
This photo of a hog CAFO represents just one of many large farms that some say are threatening the environment and local economy in rural Wisconsin.

The struggle with new large hog farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, in rural Wisconsin has culminated into new coverage from national media, including one organization that produced a documentary.

The Real News Network partnered with In These Times to produce a 30-minute documentary featuring several anti-CAFO advocates, originally based on two written news reports from Simon Davis-Cohen and Hannah Faris earlier in 2021. The documentary was released online July 21. This follows several local governments facing backlash for attempting to extend moratoria on these hog farms in order to prevent the owning companies from setting up shop in several counties and townships, including Burnett and Polk counties where the battle has come to a head.

Anti-CAFO advocates say they oppose the new hog farms because of scientific evidence that they contribute to air and water pollution and they also decrease property values. Some small farmers also expressed concerns for the disappearance of small, independently-owned farms since these CAFOs are often operated for "big ag" companies.

Pro-CAFO advocates want to keep the CAFOs in these communities because they oppose the restriction of their freedom to choose where they can open a business. They also claim the scientific studies the other side is citing are outdated and misinformed.

Some organizations, such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and Venture Dairy, also say it's an attack on the agriculture industry. These organizations have threatened litigation against the townships and counties who have implemented or are looking to implement rules and regulations that would limit the CAFOs.

Lisa Doerr

Lisa Doerr, a Polk Co. farmer who opposes the CAFOs moving into her community, said she's glad more media have begun to cover this issue because the work she's been doing is at the grassroots level, making it difficult to reach legislators in Madison. Doerr also accused pro-CAFO advocates of misrepresenting themselves at town hall meetings.

"Everything that I talk about is documented with peer reviewed studies ... they throw all kinds of accusations at us about misinformation," Doerr said. "They had one of their lobbyists come all the way to Laketown to go to one of our little meetings, and she pretended that she was just a housewife who wanted to know what was going on. We know perfectly well who she is."

Pro-CAFO advocates also use divisive rhetoric, Doerr claimed, as she was told "real farmers" grow commodity crops and raise livestock on these CAFOs for big companies like Cargill. As a small farmer herself, she said every farmer is working hard to support the local economy in Polk Co. and preserve their fragile food supply chain.

Kristy Allen, a Burnett Co. farmer and chapter president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said she is protecting basic human rights as an anti-CAFO advocate. She explained that many residents, farmers and non-farmers, feel scared of the impact these CAFOs could have on their community if they were allowed to stay. Allen said it's been an emotional ride during her advocacy for this issue.

Kristy Allen

"The majority of people that I talked to are scared, and there's some defeatism but also, we have to do whatever it takes," Allen said. "(There are) extreme things that are said emotionally, down to like, 'I'm gonna go get my gun' death threat stuff that recently happened."

The Real News Network editor-in-chief Maximillian Alvarez, who produced the documentary, said CAFOs have become a polarizing topic in these rural Wisconsin communities, so polarizing that personal relationships between people on opposite sides of the issue have been affected. He said he believes that these large farms are creating less opportunity for small farms and concentrating the wealth of the ag industry into the hands of a few, hurting local economies.

"Agricultural production is consolidated, concentrated in the hands of a few big, international actors. I think it's really important for folks to see that this isn't just one struggle against one hog factory," Alvarez said. "It's really a struggle by local communities against the onslaught of corporate consolidation that is providing fewer and fewer economic pathways to a comfortable dignified life for farmers."

Allen said the WFU is in general tackling corporate power and influence in the food supply chain, and advocating against CAFOs is part of that goal. She said many of the farmers producing commodities for large corporate entities are "on the very bottom" when it comes to who benefits from these large operations. She also said that this particular issue is just part of what she's been fighting for a long time – the growth of the food industry in the wrong direction.

Maximillian Alvarez

Alvarez claimed that many members of the pro-CAFO groups have told him and others that they're "disqualified" from commenting on ag-related issues if you're not a farmer yourself. Since a significant amount of anti-CAFO advocates are not farmers, but environmentalists, Alvarez said companies and organizations defending CAFOs have created a bubble around their industry.

"Our partner at Within These Times, Hannah (Faris), grew up just about an hour outside of Polk County," Alvarez said. "It's this sort of bias, if you are not deeply entrenched in these farming communities, you're ... disqualified from the jump from commenting on it."

It's also a "land war," Doerr claimed, noting that several of her community members had been approached by investors looking to buy land on which to build CAFOs. She also expressed concern with viruses being easily spread among hog farms, like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, of which a new variant called PRRS 1-4-4 achieved a mortality rate of up to 80% among hog nurseries. African swine fever virus, which was most recently detected in Central America, would also be destructive if it spread to these hog farms in the US, she said.

"(Hog producers) are on the record saying that they're going to have to leave southern Minnesota and Iowa because the viruses are so pervasive. We have filtration systems that can't stop them, and they're losing the whole herd," Doerr said. "I'm working on this because they basically want to come in and do to us what they've done to Iowa and southern Minnesota."