By Barbara Patterson, government relations representative, National Farmers Union
Local control is eroding across the country and examples abound: in 2014, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin announced her state would block any city from increasing the minimum wage on the local level; Texas made local fracking bans illegal; and the Supreme Court of Ohio struck down five municipal ordinances governing oil and gas drilling earlier this year.
Local control is especially important for farmers and rural communities, as local residents have the knowledge and understanding of the areas they live in and can therefore make decisions about what is best for the community. This is especially true when it comes to regulations, such as zoning regulations, that impact the natural resources that can make or break a community. Farmers and ranchers depend on clean and adequate water and healthy soils.
Farmers Union has been a leading advocate for preserving local control. Just this year, Nebraska Farmers Union led the charge on defeating a state bill that would have usurped local control of zoning regulations for livestock. Wisconsin Farmers Union South Central Chapter, under chapter president Kriss Marion’s leadership, has also had success with preserving local control as it pertains to livestock.
Green County, Wisconsin, located in the south central part of Wisconsin on the Illinois border, is a county of small towns. The whole county has 285 dairy farms with a total of 26,978 head of dairy cows (about 95 cows per farm on average). Only 21 dairy farms, 7 percent of the dairy farms in Green County, have 200 cows or more. In fact, the six largest dairies in Green County combined have 5,422 head of dairy cattle.
So when Todd Tuls proposed to build a 5,500+ cow operation, Pinnacle Dairy, in Green County, local residents began a grassroots effort called Green County Defending our Farmland to stop it. There are many reasons why local residents would not want a dairy farm of that size near their own farms or homes. Such high concentrations of animals create high concentrations of waste products that can impact a community’s air, water and land quality. A dairy this size would require willing and neighboring farms to provide 7,000 acres to spread manure and would draw more than 200,000 gallons of water a day from a high-capacity well.
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, a farm is an Animal Feeding Operation (AFO) if the animals are confined for at least 45 days in a 12-month period, and there is no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season. A dairy farm is a large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) if the farm meets the definition of AFO above and has 700 or more mature cattle.
CAFOs are regulated primarily by the EPA through the Clean Water Act. State governments also share in the regulation of CAFOs to varying degrees. Wisconsin also has a Livestock Facility Siting rule which forbids local governments from applying standards to livestock facilities that are more stringent than the state rules. More simply stated, communities lack control over regulating their communities when it comes to livestock. If a locality wants to regulate a CAFO differently than the state government, either through zoning or some other measure, it must qualify for an exemption. The criteria for exemption are:
- The political subdivision is authorized to adopt the standards under other applicable laws;
- The more stringent standards were in place before an application for an expansion was received;
- The more stringent standards are based on “reasonable and scientifically defensible” findings; and they are adopted by the political subdivision; and
- The “reasonable and scientifically defensible” findings clearly demonstrate that the more stringent standards are necessary to “protect public health or safety.”
In this case, the community of Sylvester passed a moratorium on CAFOs to allow more time for study of potential effects on groundwater. Despite popular support within the community for not allowing the CAFO of this size to develop, the only means available to prevent development was a moratorium until a study is complete. This leaves the burden on a tiny, rural township of 1,000 people to conduct a study that is reasonable and scientifically defensible (meaning that it would hold up in court) and that demonstrates a moratorium on CAFOs is necessary to protect public health and safety. The burden of proof rests with the community to allocate resources to proving that a CAFO would threaten public health or safety, despite the apparent community opposition to the CAFO.
Many of the impacts of CAFOs are felt most directly by the local communities surrounding them, making the local level the most appropriate place for regulations to be set. National Farmers Union has long recognized this. In fact, NFU policy supports, “Implementing a temporary moratorium on the establishment of CAFOs based on issues of health until local control is re-established.” NFU does not oppose CAFOs and recognizes that there are CAFOs that are rooted in their communities and take the necessary precautions to mitigate risk and comply with regulations. Problems can arise, however, when CAFOs are managed by corporate agriculture. In this case, the owner of the CAFO lives in another state and has no ties to the community.
As a part of Tuls permit applications, he had to submit a nutrient plan which provides information on how the CAFO would handle the manure and other byproducts. His permit did not include a nutrient management plan. As a result, the moratorium will temporarily stall Mr. Tuls from building in Sylvester. This is a major win for the farmers and residents of the local community. For more information on how to protect your community from CAFOs, check out this guide by Midwest Environmental Advocates: Protecting Your Community From Existing and Proposed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), A Guide to Legal Actions. Additionally, here is a fact sheet from Wisconsin Farmers Union on the loss of dairy farms and increased concentration in the sector.