Navigating the CAFO process

Colleen Kottke
Now Media Group

Farmers considering expansion of their dairy operations often find themselves navigating a mountain of paperwork and permits in the highly regulated world of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

While Wisconsin's agriculture businesses contribute more than $59.6 billion to the state's economy, those very operations that drive that economy have the potential to harm the environment by discharging pollutants to Wisconsin's waterways.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, every farm, regardless of size, is responsible for meeting performance standards and prohibitions to prevent polluting lakes, rivers, wetlands or groundwater.

The state regulates waste storage structures and manure application at large farms as CAFOs under the U.S. EPA Clean Water Act's pollutant discharge permit program (known in Wisconsin as WPDES).

According to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, CAFOS account for 25 percent (or 300,000) of Wisconsin's 1.3 million dairy cows.

A group of experts fielded questions about the CAFO permitting process during the CAFO Workshop 2016 held in Fond du Lac County in February. Sharing their insight was Environmental Scientist Jen Keuning at GHD, former DNR employee Bryan Ellefson and now-owner of Compliance Advantage LLC and Grant Grinstead of Vir-Clar Farms LLC.

From the beginning

The first step in the process is contacting DNR staff that will help outline the permitting process that involves multiple regulatory programs. Permits that will need to be reviewed and approved include a WPDES Discharge Permit, a Water and Wastewater Permit to Construct, and potentially an Air Quality Permit.

The next step is to hire an engineer to help develop your wastewater, waste, and nutrient management plans and design the structures required by your permit. And finally, completing the endless forms and applications to apply for permits from the regulatory programs with oversight for CAFOs.

Using his knowledge of permitting and enforcement at the DNR, Ellefson said he soon found his niche in the private sector as a consultant.

"A lot of farmers had questions about the agency's permitting process. While a lot of engineering firms did all the design work there seemed to be a disconnect," Ellefson said. "I was able to bridge the communication gap and hung my shingle out there."

Hailing from Kewanee County as an Extension Agent, Keuning was quite in tune with the CAFO permitting process in northeast Wisconsin.

"For those starting out, it's a daunting effort to really learn the process and understand the pieces and parts that go into it," Keuning said. "The Environmental Assessment questionnaire — which is 20 pages long — ;really tells the story of your farm: what you're doing, your location and the geography and wildlife species around you. Some producers may breeze through it, but there's an awful lot to ferret out."

When Grinstead married into the Boyke family, he inherited the task of handling all the permits associated with the Fond du Lac County CAFO. When he first started the process, he dealt with 25 fields. That number soon grew to 130.

"I started running out of alpha numeric characters and had to revamp all that in addition to consolidating fields down to 101. That's a lot of different plots of ground that we had to keep data for," Grinstead said. "At the time I was using Yahoo maps and it became confusing and complicated. We've come a long way with technology since then."

Don't go it alone

Asked what advice they would give someone going into the permitting process for the first time. Don't do it alone, Ellefson said.

"You have to bring someone in that it going to coordinate all the efforts and then pick one person on the farm to be the sole contact," Ellefson said. "And stay connected with the process as much as you can and keep copies and ask for acknowledgment of receipt of documents. And be sure to cc everyone in the pipeline on that (communication) transmission.

A second opinion is always a good thing, Keuning said.

"Have someone do a walkover of your facility to provide a different set of eyes," she said. "And be sure to have all the information you need in hand. Don't submit your package if all the information isn't in it. You're just asking for it to get kicked back."

Ellefson echoed her advice.

"Request all the DNR and county records and get copies made. It's important to have a baseline from which to work," Ellefson said. "Remember, the DNR likes to see copies of all documenting."

Going public

Some farmers may be hesitant to inform adjacent residents of their plans to increase the size of their dairy herd. The media is often filled with headlines of concerned citizens voicing their opposition after learning of the intent of the farm owner.

"In the 10 years that I worked in Kewanee County, it's really difficult for these owners when flagged for a public hearing in front of a group of folks that are unhappy with the situation," Keuning said. "I've seen projects done without anyone knowing about it until the papers were filed at the agency and then I've seen other farms that threw the doors open and brought the neighbors in for tours."

Grinstead said Vir-Clar Farms spearheaded a Fall Festival on the farm, inviting the community to come out and tour the farm during harvest season. The two-day event draws around 1,000 visitors, he said.

"We're this large dairy just right outside of town and it helps to create an awareness among the community," Grinstead said. "We also visit the landlords bringing along the paperwork that tracks the manure application on their land. We just work hard to be good neighbors around the dairy."

Ellefson said it's important to keep everyone informed during the process.

"But no matter how much information you hand out, there are still going to be people who are not receptive," Ellefson said. "There usually a lot of hype and uncertainty that follows the news about a big expansion coming to the neighborhood. But then when the construction is complete and things settle down, there just isn't any feedback anymore."