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Wisconsin law would limit local control of large factory farms

Legislators seek to give state agency the power to decide where new livestock facilities are located.

Legislators seek to give state agency the power to decide where new livestock facilities are located.

Wisconsin State Capitol, south face (Public domain)

A bill quickly making its way through the Wisconsin legislature would take away the authority of local officials to approve or reject proposals for large new livestock operations in their towns, cities, and counties.

Such confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) do not resemble traditional farms, and are actually believed to be responsible for low prices and excess supply of milk and other products that are driving many Wisconsin farmers out of business.

There are only a few operating CAFOs in the parts of Wisconsin that drain to the St. Croix River, so far. More are proposed in the region, worrying neighbors and environmental advocates.

At a dairy cow CAFO near Baldwin last November, thousands of gallons of manure flowed off a field and into a designated trout stream, killing fish in the tributary of the Willow River.

Two counties and some municipalities in the region have enacted moratoriums while they study zoning laws and other regulations they can use to protect themselves.

Manure-laden water flowing through Hutton Creek in the St. Croix River watershed, Nov. 2019 (Wisconsin DNR photo)

AB894/SB808 would essentially take away any remaining power by such local boards to decide on CAFO applications. It would also limit public input on where and how such large-scale livestock production facilities could operate.

The new legislation was first introduced by a group of Republicans on Monday, with a hearing already yesterday.

“The expedited process associated with this bill is preventing meaningful review, discussion and comments from the public and interested parties,” said Adam Voskuil of the Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA). “Since this hearing was announced, MEA has been inundated with citizen comments and concerns regarding the process and substance of this legislation.”

At the hearing yesterday, another MEA staffer, a former Wisconsin farmer, told the committee that the bill would actually hurt small farmers at the expense of big industrial agriculture companies.

She told the story of a farmer friend who now lived next to a 6,000-head dairy CAFO, and had to flee her home with her children when manure gasses made it dangerous to stay.

“I strongly disagree with attempts to frame this as a conversation that puts farmers on one side and everybody else on the other,” Peg Sheaffer of MEA testified. “The organizations that were given the opportunity to weigh in—the Dairy Business Association, the Dairy Alliance and others—represent only a small subset of farmers—those with enough money and power to have full time lobbyists at the capitol.”

The proposed legislation would:

  • Cap fees that local governments can charge to review CAFO applications.
  • Block local officials from enacting standards that are more stringent than what the state requires.
  • Prohibit local governments from requiring a financial “damage deposit” to pay for remediation if a company goes bankrupt or otherwise abandons manure lagoons and other facilities.
  • Create a new technical review board with a majority of the seats reserved for representatives of industrial agriculture, and require a two-thirds vote of the new board for any future revisions to the Livestock Facility Siting Law.
  • Give this board the power to overturn DATCP decisions on CAFO applications, letting a group controlled by industrial agriculture have the final authority.
  • Eliminate the process for reviewing and updating the state’s Livestock Facility Siting Law, which is currently required to take place every four years.
  • Ignore 30 months of work and input from the public on the most recent Livestock Siting Rule review and revisions.

It would also force the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protections to oversee the entire application process, without any funding to pay staff to do the work.

“We do not have the position and work power required to begin to administer this program,” Angela James, assistant deputy secretary at DATCP, told the committee yesterday, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Wisconsin Assembly is planning to adjourn for the year on Feb. 20, with the Senate working until sometime in March.

People with comments or concerns on the legislation are encouraged to contact their state elected officials. Find contact information on MyVote Wisconsin, provided by the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Contact Governor Tony Evers through the official website.

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