Tidal wave of sewage reveals disconnect between press, farmers

Bill Eberle

Imagine for a moment that a convoy of 740 farm manure tankers simultaneously tipped over, and each truck dumped its entire load of 5,000 gallons of manure into the Wisconsin River. In the ensuing gush of waste, a tidal wave larger than six Olympic-size swimming pools, would contaminate this cherished natural resource.

Bill Eberle

The mind reels at the level of outcry that would ensue. Environmental activists and lobbyists — ranging from the Sierra Club to Midwest Environmental Advocates — would decry the calamity, and media from across the state would race to the location, issuing hourly updates online under banners exclaiming, “Wisconsin’s Environmental Disaster: Day 1, Day 2, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum …”

We KNOW this would happen because, over the past decade, each time a single manure spill released a few hundred gallons on a vacant farm field or ditch, headlines have actually used words, such as “crisis” or “fish kill,” while reporters scrambled for interviews with any vacation-home owner willing to condemn the latest affront to rural property owners.

Which brings us now to reality: On Jan. 23, a mind-numbing 3.7 MILLION gallons of raw human sewage poured into the Wisconsin River (roughly the size and amount noted at the start of this column) as a result of a pipe blockage in the Wausau area. Let’s be perfectly clear about this: A devil’s brew of untreated human feces, drug residues and other bodily wastes flushed directly into one of the state’s cherished rivers.

Here’s what happened next:

  • One week after the incident, a local TV channel ran a 6-sentence story, noting that sewage “leaked” into the river. The next day, the local paper picked up the story, also used the word “leaked” in its headline, and did its competitor one better by running a 7-sentence story.
  • Not one environmental “advocate” was interviewed by either news agency. In fact, the only person quoted was Public Works Director Eric Lindman who recommended that (and I quote directly here) “any fish caught be washed and cooked thoroughly.”
  • Not only did powerful organizations, such as the Sierra Club, remain silent, but locally active “environmental factions,” such as Saratoga Concerned and Kewaunee Cares, sat on their hands.
  • Neither of the two largest newspapers in the state — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal — reported the story.

It is an increasingly frustrating exercise to be a farmer in Wisconsin, made even more demoralizing by seeing the double standard applied by today’s so-called journalists and environmentalists. The slightest agricultural mishap, which might release just tens of gallons of cow manure, can lead to media backlash and/or public outcry; and, God forbid, you operate a farm that is classified as a CAFO, and have such an incident. As American consumers have grown detached from the realities of food production, so has any benefit of the doubt. The same standards clearly do not apply in urban or suburban settings.

I am proud of spending four decades — my entire life, really — in agriculture. Despite the long hours, hard labor and sometimes unforgiving nature of the work, I have always taken great pride in the inherent nobility that comes from bringing food from our land and livestock.

Wisconsin farmers are accustomed to working with an indifferent press corps. I fear now we are at the mercy of one that is openly antagonistic.

Bill Eberle has spent his entire adult life in the dairy industry managing the operations of some of Wisconsin’s largest dairies. Today he works as an industry consultant specializing in dairy nutrition and labor management 

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