Wisconsin state officials can point proudly to their recent “wins” — or can they?
"Win" No. 1: Ben Brancel and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection have reportedly achieved Gov. Scott Walker’s long-term goal for Wisconsin milk production. The 30x20 goal (30 billion pounds of milk produced in Wisconsin by the year 2020) has been achieved — three years early!
"Win" No. 2: In northeast Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp and her DNR are batting 1,000 in approving every single CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation, sometimes referred to as a “factory farm”) application or expansion, regardless of the underlying shallow soils and cracked bedrock in this part of the state. These expansions have doubled the total cattle herd count to over 100,000 in Kewaunee County alone over the past 30 years. Throughout the state, CAFOs have multiplied by 400 percent between 2000 and 2016, to just over 250 large farms.
"Win" No. 3: In 1990 Wisconsin was said to have less than 6,000 high-capacity wells (wells pumping over 70 gallons of water per minute). Today we have 12,700 such wells, a 112 percent increase! Following citizen complaints in the central part of Wisconsin related to failed wells, dried up lake beds, and streams that have ceased flowing, Brad Schimel, Wisconsin's attorney general, issued his legal opinion that the state DNR (whose stated mission is to protect our natural resources) lacks the authority to impose conditions on high-capacity wells based upon the cumulative impact new wells will have on state waters. Now the state Assembly and state Senate have both voted to remove DNR reviews on permit compliance when high-capacity wells are rebuilt or when well ownership is transferred.
So, 30 BILLION pounds of milk three years earlier than planned, a perfect string of new CAFO approvals (even in areas with highly vulnerable geology), and a more than 100 percent increase in high-capacity wells in just over 25 years! Our government agencies, Legislature and administration have achieved a nearly perfect record. Shouldn’t this be cause for celebration?
Let’s ask the farmers.
For those working to make a living dairy farming, low milk prices continue to take a toll, and the more new large-farm expansions that are encouraged, the more downward pressure there is on milk prices. Even in agricultural markets that have government price supports or subsidies, overproduction will eventually drive down prices, and then converting the oversupply of raw milk into dairy products such as cheese and butter drives down the value of those products as well.
Who helps pay for the overproduction? We all do. Last year alone the USDA made two separate $20 million purchases of cheese products to help reduce a cheese surplus that it said was at the highest level in 30 years. The purchases were also supposed to help “the stalled marketplace for dairy producers whose revenue has dropped 35 percent over just the past two years.” Still, the state of Wisconsin touts our success in achieving further production gains, and when the markets can no longer accept the increased production, we blame Canada. It’s hard to see that the dairy farmers and the dairy product producers in Wisconsin were real winners under these state policies.
Let’s ask those living in areas with the greatest dairy growth.
The most recent tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in concert with UW-Oshkosh indicate that water from over 30 percent of the hundreds of unique wells that have been tested in Kewaunee County are unsafe for human consumption due to high levels of nitrates, coliform bacteria or e-coli. In Door and Kewaunee counties nearly every major waterway and water body is now listed on the EPA’s impaired waters List.
U.S. Congressman Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, is working to find ways to curb the runoff that is creating a massive dead zone in Green Bay, and yet thousands more cattle have been approved for these two counties in just the first months of 2017!
Each mature cow produces more than 20 times the waste of an adult human. A 1,000-cow herd addition requires spreading untreated waste equivalent to that of 20,000 humans over land that may be unsuited to accept this amount of untreated manure. The herd size increases of just the first few months of 2017 in Door and Kewaunee counties will add the human waste equivalent of the entire population of Green Bay to the hundreds of millions of gallons of liquid manure already being applied here. We would not even consider spreading that amount of human waste over our lands but that is exactly what we are doing here with cattle manure.
So who were the winners when new CAFO or CAFO expansions were permitted in these areas? For those living here with concerns about health, property values, and overall quality of life, the further expansion of large-scale farms did not seem like much of a win.
Let’s ask those who treasure the irreplaceable waters of our state.
For those who value Wisconsin’s waterways, the approval of more and more high-capacity wells and the resulting dry lakes, and more and more herd expansions in vulnerable areas with the resulting compromised water quality, probably didn't feel like a big win.
Yes, our state can tout these new records, but real winners are hard to find. When will Wisconsin choose a course correction that no longer encourages increasing milk production in a glutted market, or further expansions of CAFOs that require land-spreading of millions of gallons of liquid manure over known vulnerable land, or the drilling of ever-more high-capacity wells? It will happen only when we, individual citizens of Wisconsin, get involved and require that our legislators demand a more reasoned approach and more accountability. Take the time to contact those who represent you and your area. Today is not too soon to start.
Lee Luft is a Kewaunee County Board supervisor, chair of the Kewaunee County Groundwater Task Force, chair of the Kewaunee County Finance Committee, and secretary of the Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation Committee.
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