Wisconsin has struggled to protect it's small family farms from the kind of industrial dairy and farming operations that would (will) put them out of business, but when people show up with $60 million, zoning always seems to bend -- in this case, in the direction of damaging the environment both above and below the ground.
How much cow manure is enough?
Bigger isn’t always better.
You may have caught wind of the expansion under way at the Rosendale Dairy up in Fond du Lac county. The winds of change are blowing, and they smell terrible. Rosendale is expanding its dairy operations to 8,000 cows, an expansion that makes Rosendale the largest concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in the state.
The bad smell starts with a misrepresentation. When you hear the word dairy, don’t you think of small farms with lush fields of alfalfa and tidy milking stalls where each farmer knows each cow? Me, too. Don’t be misled: Rosendale Dairy isn’t a farm, it’s a $60 million factory. Here’s the real poop.
Any time a farm goes over 700 cows, it has to get a permit and meet a set of state Department of Natural Resources guidelines for manure management. If standing downwind from 700 cows sounds rough, imagine 8,000. That many cows produce about 92 million gallons of manure every year. This works out to 12,298,611 cubic feet, enough manure to cover a typical football field to a depth of 213.5 feet. Imagine Lambeau Field filled with cow manure to the height of a 20-story building. More simply, according to the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union, Rosendale will produce as much raw sewage as the city of Green Bay – except cow manure doesn’t go through a processing plant before being discharged into the environment. The CAFO plans to to spread it over 5,631 acres of local cropland; that’s 16,338 gallons per acre per year. The smell isn’t the only impending nightmare for people in that part of the state. The potential run-off pollution and groundwater contamination are enough to make you give up cheese curds.
There are two tricks to spreading manure without contaminating the ground water. The first, of course, is to spread it on ground that isn't leaky -- that won't let the poop into the ground water.
What kind of ground is underneath this 16,338 gallons of manure per acre per year? The report says “thin sediments overlying dolomite.” Translated into technical English this means: Doh!. Dolomite is typically so full of cracks that it might as well have pipes running directly into the groundwater. The scientifically sedate language of the report states: “Groundwater flow in the dolomite is via fractures and bedding planes with very little attenuation of contaminants.” “Very little attenuation” means the poop washes directly into the aquifer without much filtration. Next stop? Your faucet.
The second trick is proper monitoring – you need to keep track of whether dumping this much manure is contaminating the groundwater so you can stop before too many people are affected – and here the regulations are toothless.
The state permit requires only self-monitoring. Rosendale Dairy, Inc. is simply asked to “report periods of non-compliance.” In fact, no groundwater monitoring is planned at the site at all and, even though the report says the site falls within state guidelines, the DNR recommends people in the vicinity have their wells periodically inspected. There's a comfort.
In a final irony, one that only state bureaucracies mixed with corporate lobbyists could produce, Rosendale will have to provide portable toilets for their human employees -- since the county does not issue permits for either holding tanks or mound systems on sites like this one. Ninety-two million gallons of cow manure pumped out over a geology likely to contaminate the ground water? No problem. Sewage from the 70 humans slated to work at this factory? "You'll need to bring in port-a-pottys. We wouldn't want to pollute anything."
More seriously, despite DNR optimism, people have good reason to be nervous. CAFO water quality management has some lousy precedents in other parts of the United States and, even in other parts of Wisconsin. In New Mexico, their Environment Department reports that fully two-thirds of its 150 dairies are contaminating local groundwater as a result of leaky containment ponds or because they’re spreading the manure too heavily on local fields. In Morrison (south of Green Bay in Brown County), over 100 wells were polluted within a few months of the first CAFOs opening there. Meanwhile, back in Fond du Lac County, Rosendale has already been caught spreading manure too close to established wells, in violation of their permit.
Something smells in Fond du Lac County. It’s the smell of Wisconsin’s family farmers drowning in... -- in industrial agriculture.
You make the call.
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A note of passage:
Alderman Terry Vrana announced he’d be leaving office this week. Mr. Vrana was my alderman and, even though I found myself at the other end of the political spectrum on nearly every issue, I remained – despite everything else – indebted to Mr. Vrana on two counts: his military service in Vietnam and his stinginess with the taxpayers’ money. For this we owe Mr. Vrana an abiding respect and our thanks for his service to this community.
One final and compelling detail is that CAFOs pay about $250 for their waste management permits, but that the state has already spent over $100,000 on the process -- another example of working taxpayers subsidizing investment bankers.
For more fascinating reading, check out the environmental impact study.