EDITORIALS

It's time for researchers to catch up to our farmers

Kim Bremmer, Cindy Leitner and Scott Manley
If the concern is a possible link between water quality and agriculture, then let’s make sure we support farmers by protecting and promoting their ability to be innovative rather than promoting more regulation.

The success of agriculture is built on continual improvements using science, technology and innovation. Agriculture continues to produce more food using fewer resources than ever before. Understanding and caring for the land and water resources are priorities for the one percent of the population that is a farmer today. This is why the conclusions drawn from the latest study from Dr. Mark Borchardt and Tucker Burch are at best outdated, and at worst – inaccurate.

The water samples used for the study were collected five to six years ago. Agricultural environmental management practices are evolving and improving every year. During the last five to six years, more anaerobic manure digesters have been built, processing nearly half of the manure in Kewaunee County today. This process kills the majority of pathogens in manure. On-farm conservation practices are continually evolving that prevent erosion and nutrient runoff. Nutrient application rates are continually being updated based on soil samples and agronomy requirements. More precision agriculture technology is being utilized for manure and fertilizer application, giving farmers the ability to put specific amounts on precise locations. Farmer-led conservation groups continue to grow in participation each year, showing measurable environmental benefits through improving soil health and protecting water quality. The list goes on and on.

MORE: Cow manure predicted to cause most illness from contaminated wells in Kewaunee Co.

From a regulatory standpoint, this study is obsolete upon publishing since the targeted performance standards for nutrient management in Silurian bedrock environments (including much of Kewaunee County) were passed in 2018 and are being implemented now, after the water data was collected for the study. Simply put, the study doesn’t reflect current conditions.

Importantly, the study is of limited use. It is not an actual epidemiological study and the authors cite no authority for their conclusion that their results align with “underreported” cases. We cannot make policy changes based on mathematical predictions and models such as QMRA, using old or even questionable data. The water testing lab technique (qPCR) used to measure the pathogens in this study is designed to detect evidence of the presence of pathogens or microorganisms. However, it does NOT detect if these organisms are living or viable organisms or if they are incapable of causing illness. This QMRA model predicts infection rates, not actual illnesses, and Kewaunee County Health Department data does not show an excessive level of disease. In fact, from a public health standpoint, according to county health data one has a greater chance of getting bitten by a dog in Kewaunee County than getting an illness from drinking private well water.

If the concern is a possible link between water quality and agriculture, then let’s make sure we support farmers by protecting and promoting their ability to be innovative rather than promoting more regulation. May we never lose sight of the fact that farmers are the true problem-solvers...not anti-CAFO agenda-focused activists, journalists or attention-seeking, funding-driven researchers.

Bremmer is executive director of Venture Dairy Cooperative, Leitner is president of Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and Manley is Executive Vice President of Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce