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Thursday, December 15, 2011

KO'd by CAFOs

CAFO is not a new brew at your local coffee shop. It's a classic bureaucratic acronym -- Confined (or some say Concentrated) Animal Feeding Operation.

It goes by more pejorative descriptions -- factory farm, industrial agriculture, animal factory.
Technically speaking, a CAFO is a CAFO only if it has at least 1,000 "animal units" -- another peculiar bureaucratic formulation that translates to about 700 milk cows.

And in Wisconsin it's the milk-cow CAFO we worry about. As dairy farms got big and broke through the CAFO sound barrier, they housed around 1,000, maybe 2,000 cows tops. That's been the case for years until another sound barrier was broken, to where 5,000, 7,000, even 10,000-cow dairy operations are starting to appear. The first and most notorious was Rosendale Dairy, in Fond du Lac County, whose huge size and cavalier attitude about the impacts of tens of millions of gallons of manure prompted neighbors, People Organized to Protect the Land, to organize, challenge and resist.

Equally notorious is Larson Acres, in Rock County, whose legal troubles with neighbors over groundwater and stream contamination prompted the dairy industry to successfully push for removal of most local decision-making regarding big livestock farms. Larson Acres is still in litigation; its neighbors and the town government made their case against Larson Farms' water pollution before the Wisconsin Supreme Court this fall.

Rock County citizens see deja vu all over again with another mega-dairy of 5,000 cows. This one, Rock Prairie Dairy, had originally proposed to spray its manure through sprinkler-like irrigation devices, but public outcry forced a change in those plans. The farm got its pollution discharge permit from the Wisconsin DNR in June.

And Big Dairy arrived in Adams County too, with 6000-cow Richfield Dairy getting permitted both for pollution discharge and to pump up to 130 million gallons of water per year in a part of the state where groundwater is being stretched to its limit.

Like most of these huge dairies, Richfield's permits are being legally challenged by neighbors likely to be affected by the hundreds of millions of gallons of manure being spread and tens of millions of gallons of water being withdrawn (and exported away, in the form of milk, of course).

One retired DNR official has said that agency is totally ill-equipped to give good scrutiny to these huge dairy farms. But even if the agency had 20 people devoted full time to reviewing CAFO permits, it would be up against this political and economic fact: no one in charge of state government wants to mess with the dairy industry. And it's not just the Scott Walker regime; Jim Doyle also had a sweet "Deal With Big Dairy."

Is this due simply to the industry's political clout? While that clout is considerable, Rat doesn't believe it's that simple. Given this state's struggling economy and as the other pillar of Cheesehead economic clout, manufacturing, continues to decline, the "raw wealth" of agriculture, in particular the dairy industry, is very appealing. Dairy farmers take natural resources and render it into high-value products. There's little infrastructure cost to prop up the industry, no unions to fight (just undocumented workers, but that's another story), and pollution controls are minimal.

It's an economic gift that gives generously, and no elected official accountable for the Wisconsin economy wants to mess with a (excuse the pun) cash cow like that. Opponents of CAFOs have to acknowledge that as they storm the dairy industry's barricades.

1 comment:

  1. The tax incentives that make these operations possible could just as easily be used to create 'micro- dairies' (similar to micro-breweries) which could be supplied by more modest and equitable farms. [despite economies of scale]