In July, Burnett County became Wisconsin’s latest local government to question the merits of large livestock farms, passing a year-long moratorium to allow further study of their impacts. In some of Wisconsin’s most conservative counties, citizens have increasingly pushed back on the livestock siting law that passed in 2004 and whose implementation began in 2006.
The law responded to deep frustration by some in agriculture that previous local permitting was an exercise in exhaustion — a patchwork of varying hurdles that made it hard to ever get final approval for farms to expand or to site new large farms. The legislation’s intent was to create an understandable approach that set state standards for permitting large farms, while providing local governments options to refuse siting permits if the proposed farm could be shown to threaten the health and safety of the community. For localities, an important part of the compromise was assurance that there would be periodic review of the law’s impact and relevance and updating of technical standards as science and technology advanced.
I was on the committee that designed that law and administrative rules. Even before passage, I questioned whether we’d gotten the balance right. Staff at the agriculture department walked me through an example of a mid-sized dairy farm seeking to expand. It passed. I probed a little into the “Odor Standard,” designed to reduce offensive odors from large farms. As an experiment, I asked staff how the farm would score had there been a smaller setback from neighbors and management practices more likely to create odors. The farm still passed. We pushed the numbers to the outer edge, and still it passed. It was obvious that the odor standard, at least, had been weighted too heavily in favor of permitting. Since then, communities have complained that the odor standard is obtuse and hard to understand.
So the periodic technical reviews of the law and its impacts really matter. Three times in the intervening years, technical experts have been convened and have issued recommendations, only to have them buried, not included in the livestock siting rules, and no public hearings called. Failing to update this law undermines its credibility and, as we just saw in Burnett County, threatens its continued adoption. No wonder many people are frustrated.
To its credit, Wisconsin’s Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection approved sending the current rules out for public hearings, scheduled in August. People with a point of view should testify.
A few key changes could improve the proposed rules.
If the rules clarified what conditions do constitute threats to public health and safety, localities could understand the bounds of their permitting discretion. Setbacks from permitted farms need to be bigger. Periodic inspection of all manure pits should be required, and localities should be allowed to require farms to post bond, in case of costly pit leaks, cleanups, or farm failures. Local governments should be allowed to charge sufficient fees to recover their costs of assessing applications of these large farms. And all expanding farms should be expected to meet new setback and other standards, to avoid creeping incremental expansions.
Clean water became a major issue in last year’s statewide elections, and these concerns are here to stay. The current livestock siting law and rules need updating, and it’s up to citizens to weigh in with responsible concerns, so we get it right this time.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
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