A Tale of Two Manure Spills…and a Loss of Credibility

Wisconsin State Farmer
Chloe Vosters

My family has been actively farming for five generations. I intend to represent the sixth.

I was raised with an appreciation that agriculture — whether livestock or crops — is a fundamentally honorable profession. My family has always taken pride in being good stewards of natural resources, attentive caregivers to animals and respectful neighbors in our communities.

However, open any daily newspaper in Wisconsin today and this is not the impression conveyed by today’s journalists. Imagine if you can: A major Wisconsin livestock farm releases 110 million gallons of untreated manure into area waterways. State environmental officials are permitting the farm to make massive releases of its manure up to six times a year.

How do you think the state’s largest newspaper would handle that story?

I can say, without hesitation, that it would be splashed across not only the top of the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (daily for at least a week) but virtually every other news outlet as well. Indignant reporters would declare war on all large farmers (claiming we’re all the same and therefore complicit in the incident), interviewing every scared neighbor within 100 miles while simultaneously demanding mass resignations of everyone from the governor to the local town council. Somewhere between the sensationalism and pure hysteria, the casual reader would get the impression the Apocalypse had started.

Now what if I told you this incident actually happened - with just one minor detail change?

Instead of it being “a major Wisconsin livestock farm,” the waste product was released by the Milwaukee Metro Sewage District (MMSD). A pair of stories related to the issue ran on Sept. 2 and Sept. 13, with each appearing relatively deep inside the Journal Sentinel — page 4 in each instance. The more damning story ran under the otherwise snoozer headline, “Sewer overflow volumes reported”.

Let’s be crystal clear about what happened here: In a single September rain event, nearly 110 million gallons of untreated sewage combined with storm water was expelled into local rivers and Lake Michigan.

In contrast, let’s explore a 2015 Sunday front page “expose’” published by the Green Bay Press Gazette, which ran under the eye-grabbing headline “Manure spills putting water at risk.” The big reveal in that story was summed up by this sentence: “Livestock operations have spilled at least 4.8 million gallons of manure since 2009, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources data and published reports across Gannett Wisconsin Media.”

The story was just one part of an ongoing front-page series that largely laid blame to Wisconsin’s water woes on agriculture. (Notice how the reporters never said how much manure actually reached water?)

To reiterate: In a period of six years, all Wisconsin livestock farmers — small, medium and large — spilled less than 5 percent of the waste that the city of Milwaukee dumped in a single incident.

As a young farmer with ambitions of my own, I am alarmed by the media’s double standard in the reporting exemplified by these two stories.

It should not be too much to ask media members to live up to the ideals of objectivity, balance, depth, analysis and context. In short, virtually everything that’s been missing in the ongoing coverage of environmental issues as they relate to farming.

As a result, many farmers — especially the younger generation ones like me — are learning how to tell our own stories on our own social media platforms. If we can’t rely on the journalists, we’re learning how to share information with neighbors, consumers and policy makers.

Poll after poll show Americans saying the press is losing “credibility.” But too many reporters seem to have forgotten credibility comes hand in hand with responsibility — and you can’t have one without the other.

Chloe Vosters is studying Dairy Science at UW-River Falls.