State data exposes trust gap between farmers, media

MaryBeth Matzek

Like the child of a strained marriage, I have watched with an increasingly heavy heart as two things that mean a great deal to me — journalism and agriculture — seem to be careening toward some kind of ugly divorce.

A 3.7 million gallon spill of human waste in the Wisconsin River appears to be a non-issue for media and environmental groups.

I care deeply about both: I spent more than two decades as a professional journalist. During that time, I worked for the largest newspaper publishing company in America (Gannett), and — more recently — as a freelance writer. More recently, I acquired and served as the publisher-editor for a small newspaper dedicated to covering farming issues throughout the Midwest. In that capacity, I gained a heartfelt appreciation for the farmers — small and large, and virtually all multi-generational family owned — that share an abiding passion for their fields and flocks.

However, a recent incident in the city of Wausau — or, more accurately, the mainstream media’s non-reaction to it — exposed a deep wound among Wisconsin’s farmers for the newspapers and broadcasters tasked with covering their industry.

On Jan. 23, Wausau municipal officials piped 3.7 million gallons of raw, untreated human feces and waste directly into the Wisconsin River (as one observer noted, that’s about as much water as 40,000 households use in a day). There was not a peep made about it for a week, and then a local TV channel offered a brief six-sentence story, describing this incident as merely a “leak.”

That’s when farmers and other media observers began asking a fair question: Years ago, when a Fond du Lac County farm accidentally released less than 50,000 gallons of cow poop near a stream, it was described in a now-unforgettable headline as “A Tsunami of Manure.” Headlines like these have been the norm for years. However, when 3.7 MILLION gallons of untreated human poop, other bodily waste, drug residues, etc. was dumped into the state’s namesake river, it was essentially treated as a “non-story.”

“How is that even remotely fair?” farmers began asking. The anger behind that question seemed justifed to me.

I decided to do a little fact checking of my own. A quick Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources promptly brought back a detailed report of all the manure spills by farms of all sizes that occurred in Wisconsin in 2017. The report listed the 92 spills recorded, ranging in size from five gallons to 200,000 gallons.

  • The DNR’s estimate total volume release from these spills was 991,885 gallons, less than 25 percent of the single action by Wausau (which, we are informed, is not the first time Wausau has had its controlled leak and won’t be the last time.)
  • The DNR noted in 24 cases there was no estimate of the amount of manure released, but if you use the average of the 68 estimates the DNR does have recorded, that would bring the total to 1,322,514 gallons for 2017, less than 36 percent of the Wausau event.
  • The single largest agricultural spill, a 200,000 gallon release, was less than 5 percent of the Wausau sewage release.

Neither side in this disintegrating marriage is disputing the data, which makes the Orwellian nature of the dispute — 50,000 gallons is a “tsunami,” but 3.7 million gallons is a “leak” — more disturbing. No wonder more than half the voting population questions the news media.

So how did we get to this point? When did the disillusionment creep into the relationship between media and farmers?

The sad truth is — much like with many human divorces — a third party entered the picture years ago. Noticeably silent in the aftermath of the Wausau incident were Wisconsin’s leading “environmental” organizations — Sierra Club, Clean Water Alliance, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Saratoga Concerned, etc. Not a peep was heard from any of them. The Wausau event simply didn’t fit their longtime anti-ag narrative (short version: cow manure is bad, human waste is a non-issue).

Hard as it is to admit, the media climbed into bed with the “environmentalists” a long time ago. Any fidelity that many journalists felt toward objectivity went out the window and, in turn, much like a shunned spouse, farmers were left on the outside looking in, feeling helpless and resentful.