CAFO moratorium deadline approaches as town of Laketown residents, board members remain divided

Samantha Hendrickson
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.

POLK COUNTY – The town of Laketown in Polk County, Wis. has less than 1,000 residents — residents that are divided between the environment and their own livelihood, as the town board weighs passing an ordinance restricting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

A moratorium on CAFO construction in Laketown, which has been extended by the town board three times, is set to end on January 25, and the adoption of the ordinance could pass in response. No meetings have been set. 

The  ordinance cracks down on CAFOs more heavily than both the state and county, something some residents see as protecting their land and water supply, and others see as putting their future in jeopardy. 

"I think it's really divided the town," said Polk County Supervisor Brad Olson, who is an opponent of the Laketown ordinance. "The feelings on it have become so strong... it's become emotional... no one is changing their minds for the most part." 

Town board meetings and public hearings have become heated. Some residents are threatening board members with lawsuits and questioning the legality of the more restrictive ordinance, which says it is seeking to prevent possible contamination of groundwater and other types of pollution by CAFOs

As some Laketown residents put it, it's a battle between the "farmers and the activists."

The lead up

While the final draft of the town of Laketown ordinance only came out in November of last year, tension over CAFOs in Polk County has been slowly rising for over two years. 

Currently, Cumberland LLC is in limbo over a proposed swine farm for neighboring Burnett County after submitting an application for a CAFO in 2019.

The proposed farm would cost more than $20 million and would house more than 26,000 hogs, according to a report from Wisconsin Public Radio. The company's application for a CAFO is credited for kicking off the conflict. 

In October 2019, the Polk County Board imposed a moratorium on the creation and expansion of large scale swine livestock facilities, or CAFOs, with 1000 animal units or more. The county then extended the moratorium for six more months the following February.

The moratorium eventually stopped when heavy backlash from multiple dairy organizations and farmers around Wisconsin fell on the county board.

More:Polk Co. backs down on CAFO moratorium after threat of legal action

However, the board later passed a controversial conditional use permit ordinance that has faced similar backlash — one the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) told the board it "opened itself up" to legal action against them in a 2020 letter. 

The letter also states that the ordinance is in violation of the Wisconsin state statute 93.90, which lays out the authority (or lack thereof) of townships in passing ordinances like these. The county ordinance also does not adhere to all the conditions laid out in ATCP 51, according to DATCP. 

"The law does not grant the authority to political subdivisions to disapprove a permit based on species. Therefore, it cannot regulate only those livestock facilities that house swine," according to the letter. 

Like other livestock, pigs produce a cocktail of odorous gases and organic compounds, though in often higher concentrations.

Laketown ordinance

The ordinance and its collected data come from a multi-town partnership across Polk and Burnett counties, made up of Laketown, Eureka, Bone Lake, Luck, Sterling and Trade Lake.

The partnership, approved last fall, "devoted a substantial amount of time and expertise in reviewing the potential impacts of large-scale livestock farming with respect to the particular natural resources of the Town of Laketown," according to the ordinance. 

The partnership also has the support of Wild Rivers Conservancy. The conservancy could not be reached for comment, but aided in collection of the data for the ordinance. 

The ordinance argues that the pollution, which the supporters of the ordinance argue will come from CAFOs established in Laketown, will not only contaminate the water, but also harm the soil and potentially cause health issues to its residents.  

Lisa Doerr, a Laketown resident and local small farmer, has been helping spearhead the research and drafting of the ordinance, and is often the name at the center of the conflict between "the farmers and the activists."

"We want to pass a local ordinance because we feel that state laws don't protect us," Doerr said. "If the state was protecting us, or the county was protecting us, we wouldn't need to do this." 

Studies conducted by the partnership found that Laketown is a  "vulnerable landscape with shallow soils, high water table and gravel formations that make large areas susceptible to groundwater pollution." According to the ordinance, 54% of Laketown's acreage is "highly susceptible" to groundwater pollution and 44% of the acreage is "moderately susceptible." 

The ordinance and the rest of its findings on potential CAFO pollution in Laketown can be found here

What opponents are saying 

Some Laketown residents are arguing that the new Laketown-specific ordinance is also in violation of Wisconsin state statute 93.90, and that the ordinance and its supporters do not have the necessary data to exclude them from review. 

Sara Byl, whose family owns the largest farm in Laketown with around 300 dairy cows, said that since the town of Laketown doesn't currently have any CAFOs, the data presented by the ordinance is incomplete. 

Byl also argues that local farmers have been left out of the research process. 

"These people that are sitting on this [partnership] don't have any experience with running a big farming operation," Byl said. 

Some residents question if the town asserts authority with this ordinance, where they'll draw the line when it come to regulating large scale farms, and later, smaller scale farms. They see "political interference" as a threat to their livelihood. 

"The place to change these things is not at the town or at the county level," Olson said, referencing 93.90. "If you want these things changed, the spot to change them is in Madison, Wisconsin... if we agree on the rules or not, that's where we change them." 

Kevin Hoffman, a public information officer for the DATCP, said the town is responsible for evaluating its own ordinance and seeking out state approval if it will exceed the state performance standards, prohibitions, conservation practices, and technical standards under s. 281.16(3) for livestock operations under s. 92.15.

However, if the ordinance requires local approval for new or expanding livestock operations (based on size) it must also meet the requirements of s. 93.90 and ATCP 51, which do not by itself require review for approval by DATCP." 

Doerr maintains that the ordinance meets the standards of 92.15 and 93.90.

Byl said she, alongside other farmers, is also worried about her future. CAFOs often offer buyouts for farms that are going under, or employ local farmers to help expand operations.

"I don't know what the future of our farm is gonna look like," Byl said. "I mean, maybe we're gonna stay at the size that we are for many years... or maybe if my son wants to come home or my nieces or nephews and they want to farm, obviously we would have to grow... I don't want the town putting a cap on the farm."

Samantha Hendrickson can be reached at 414-223-5383 or shendrickson@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @samanthajhendr