Dairy group uses behind-the-scenes influence with Gov. Scott Walker to shift regulation of large livestock farms
Agriculture interests are working behind the scenes with the administration of Gov. Scott Walker as he mounts a major change in the way large livestock farms are regulated in Wisconsin.
The Republican governor introduced a wide-ranging rural agenda on Oct. 26 that included a proposal to shift oversight of large dairy farms and other livestock operations to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Moving those powers from the Department of Natural Resources — the state’s chief environmental enforcement agency — has sparked controversy. Environmentalists are concerned about less emphasis on conservation, but farm groups say the agriculture department is the rightful place to enforce permitting and manure handling of big farms.
While the public has yet been able to weigh in on promised hearings, farms groups have had Walker's ear.
State records show that one day before Walker’s October speech in Trego, in northwestern Wisconsin, the governor’s office received detailed plans from the Dairy Business Association on legal requirements and strategic options to move the program.
According to the documents, the association also emailed talking points to the governor, describing the agriculture department as a “natural regulator of farms,” housed with experts who understand farming practices.
“As a state, we need to double-down on policies to help our farmers, and this change is certainly consistent with doing just that,” the group advised Walker.
Late last year, emails show the dairy group and its representatives provided draft legislation to guide the transition.
The association has also received briefings from the administration as the two agencies work out of the public eye on budgeting, personnel and legal issues to move the program, according to documents, interviews and emails with parties involved.
The records come from emails and other documents provided by Walker’s office and the two agencies to Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm.
The documents cover the period between Jan. 1, 2016, and March 9 and were provided to the law firm under the state open records law after lawyers asked for information about the move. The firm provided copies of the records to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
If Walker wins re-election, a spokeswoman said the governor will propose moving the permit program for concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in next year’s budget.
In most states, pollution control agencies like the DNR regulate large dairy farms. The change would need approval from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Walker called for a study of the move in the 2017-’19 budget, but members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee removed the measure before the budget was approved.
CAFOs typically house 1,000 cows or more and have come under fire over their odors and manure’s potential impact to pollute groundwater and streams. Citizens groups have also filed legal challenges to new and expanding operations.
The industry says its operations are more regulated than smaller farms, and with their size and scale, they have professional staffs to stay on top of environmental requirements.
The Walker administration’s move on CAFOs comes as large farms have grown and many smaller dairy farmers find themselves in dire straits.
Since 2004, Wisconsin has lost more than 7,000 dairy farms, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the number of large farms have grown from 50 in 2000 to about 300 today — an increase of 500%, DNR figures show.
Lobbying for change
The Dairy Business Association says it hasn’t been shy about the push to move regulation out of the DNR.
“We need a fresh approach to how we are dealing with permitting these farms,” John Holevoet, the dairy group’s director of government affairs said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.
Holevoet cited problems found in a state audit of the DNR’s handling of the program and he said agriculture officials now regulate aspects of farming, including some inspections and manure spreading practices at smaller farms.
Another reason to move CAFO regulation is because of what he said is the DNR’s poor relations with farmers.
“There is a mutual distrust between the regulated community and DNR,” Holevoet said. “Frankly, DATCP has the relationship with our farms that we should all wish DNR had with those it regulates.”
In 2016, the Legislative Audit Bureau found numerous problems in the DNR’s wastewater program, which includes CAFOs, citing backlogs, staff turnover and other problems.
Currently, the program has 22 positions, according to the DNR. But nine are vacant, including eight of 14 staff who work in the field. Also, DNR figures show that 20% of all CAFO permits have expired.
Retired DNR administrator Gordon Stevenson, who was involved in farm issues while working at the agency, said many problems stem from a lack of funding and the inevitable conflicts arising around farm regulation.
CAFOs pay an annual fee of $345 a year. By comparison, wastewater utilities regulated in the same program pay thousands of dollars annually in permit fees.
“The public and agriculture hates them,” Stevenson said of his former colleagues. “We have a public in revolt and we have a very powerful industry here. It has been quite the donnybrook and we’ve had it for quite some years.”
No public input yet
An attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates said her group is concerned about a lack of transparency involving a policy that represents a fundamental shift in the way the largest farms are regulated.
“The public is being cut out of a process that changes the regulation of an entire industry,” said Tressie Kamp. “We’re not getting a seat at the table.”
Stevenson predicted the move to the agriculture department would mean a lighter regulatory hand from an agency whose duties also include agriculture promotion and the annual Alice in Dairyland competition.
“Over my 26 years of interacting with the agriculture department on CAFO issues, economic interests always trumped environmental interests,” said Stevenson, who is currently on the board of Midwest Environmental Advocates.
Stevenson retired as a chief of runoff management at the DNR in 2011.
Walker’s spokeswoman, Amy Hasenberg, said in an email that the governor wants to include plans to transfer authority to the agriculture department in the next state budget.
“The administration is looking at proposals at this time to meet the governor’s desire to help the dairy industry, especially in this time of crisis, by streamlining regulations,” Hasenberg said. “Our objective is to be more efficient, more effective, and more accountable to the people.”
After Walker’s announcement last October, documents show the Dairy Business Association and its lawyers and lobbyists began working with Walker’s office, and later, Republican lawmakers, on draft legislation to make the switch.
The bill by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel) was never introduced.
Since fall, staff at the agriculture and natural resources departments have held a series of meetings on the logistics of a transfer, and records and interviews show the administration has shared updates with farm groups.
For example, Russ Rasmussen, a DNR official who is heading up his agency’s discussions on the transfer, attended two meetings in January with the Dairy Business Association at the offices of its law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich.
In emails, DNR spokesman Jim Dick described meetings between the DNR and agriculture department as “preliminary ongoing barnstorming sessions,” covering legal, personnel and budgeting issues.
“No decisions have been made. This is all at preliminary stages,” Dick said.
Hasenberg, the governor’s spokeswoman, said there would be ample time during the budget process for a public vetting.
“Sure, there will be an opportunity for public comment later,” Kamp said. “But there is all of this information sharing now, and then later we have to rush in, to try to get our foot in the door.”
The agencies’ briefings have not included environmental groups, except for a meeting between the DNR's Rasmussen on May 21 with Kamp and another lawyer for the firm who asked that the process be opened up.