|Growth of large-scale farming puts strain on local governments|
|Written by Todd Mishler/Walworth County Sunday|
|Thursday, 13 October 2011 13:56|
Tom McClellan has a herd of 450 cows on his Darien Township farm. He’s been watching with interest the growth of larger dairy farms, including the Rock Prairie Dairy, just over the Walworth/Rock county line. Terry Mayer/staff photo.
(Read the full story in the e-edition HERE.)
DARIEN TOWNSHIP — Tom McClellan runs the same farm on which his grandfather, father and uncle built a parlor and free-stall milking barn, a new concept back in October 1966. The operation has continued to undergo numerous transformations to keep pace with changing times and technology.
“We’re still milking in part of the original barn, and we’re awfully fortunate to be doing that,” said McClellan, who rents out much of his 2,500 acres, which are planted in corn and beans and provide forage for a herd of about 450 cows. “But we’ve added on, remodeled, moved and removed buildings. Many of the things we started with are long gone. It’s been a lot of hit and miss, but you learn and make things work.”
McClellan and his family have survived — on Wisconsin Highway 11 in Darien Township — while many other smaller, mom-and-pop businesses in agriculture and other industries have not.
That’s because the so-called mega farms, either expanding older operations or new ones, are becoming more and more common. Rock County features two of the largest: Larson Acres in Magnolia Township southwest of Evansville is an example of the former, while Rock Prairie Dairy in Bradford Township represents one of the latter.
Predictably, these huge operations have been subjected to criticism from nearby landowners, residents and local government officials with concerns about everything from the smell to ethical issues to public health and environmental protection.
However, these large farms have increased across Wisconsin since Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection Act 51, or the livestock siting law, became effective in 2006. It means that local governments must determine if a proposed facility meets certain standards in these areas:
• Property line and road setbacks
• Management and training plans
• Odor management
• Nutrient management
• Manure storage facilities
• Runoff management
So, townships’ hands are usually tied when it comes to placing conditional use or similar permits on larger farms if they meet these requirements. More than 70 such applications have been approved across the state since the law hit the books and none have been denied, although some prospective owners have had to modify their plans to meet the standards.
Unlike their neighbors to the west, towns in Walworth County don’t possess zoning authority; the Walworth County Zoning Agency does, and issuing permits to these big operations is pretty much a formality, much to the consternation of groups or individuals who oppose them.
“The idea (behind the legislation) isn’t to prevent these larger operations,” said Matt Weidensee, a planner with the Walworth County Land Use and Resource Management Department, who has worked for Walworth County for 21 years. “If they meet all of the bells and whistles, we want people to be able to farm.”
Operations with at least 500 animal units — one dairy cow equals 1.4 animal units — are required to meet ATCP 51 rules, although places such as the McClellan farm are grandfathered in.
Waiting on high court
Larson Acres also has been around for a long time, but that dispute recently made it all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, while Rock Prairie, located just west of the Rock-Walworth county line, has avoided any legal entanglements and continues to move toward a mid-November opening.
The Larson case started in 2006 when it applied for a conditional-use permit for a heifer facility at its County B farm, part of an expansion that would increase its herd from 1,600 at one site to more than 4,100 at two locations. The town imposed conditions on the permit in March 2007, and the farm appealed to the state livestock siting board, which ordered that the permit be reissued with fewer conditions.
The town said it was trying to protect groundwater, while Mike Larson said the town was micromanaging the farm. A county judge agreed with the town, but an appeals court sided with the state board and farm. The Magnolia Town Board and area residents filed petitions for review to the Supreme Court, which heard opening arguments Sept. 7.
However, it could take months before the state’s highest court rules on how much control to give local governments in such situations.
Water, waste cause concern
Peg Reedy is an agriculture agent for the Walworth County University of Wisconsin Extension. She said that most people she’s heard from are worried about water quality and other environmental issues in a county that features three concentrated animal feeding operations which are farms or businesses that have 1,000 animal units (700 dairy cows) or more and are required to have water protection permits.
Regardless, every farm is responsible for properly managing its manure and the other nutrients it applies to the land to prevent polluting lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater.
“Obviously, application of manure on farms that put out that much waste would be a concern, especially when there are spreading restrictions like during the winter,” Reedy said.
Darien Township Chairman Cecil Logterman and McClellan understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of the increasing trend toward larger farms.
“One of my biggest concerns, as far as the township goes, is the application of the manure,” said Logterman, who has held his post since 2000 and lives only a few miles away from Rock Prairie Dairy. “And let’s say he has to use heavy trucks on county roads, most of which are (designated) Class B, and that starts busting up the roads. It’ll be our responsibility to repair them.
“Don’t get me wrong, my family has been involved in agribusiness for a long time, so I support farmers,” he added. “A lot of farmers I’ve talked to are supportive of (Rock Prairie Dairy) because they believe it will improve and have a positive impact on agribusiness.”
McClellan was among the farmers who traveled to Nebraska to see how Rock Prairie Dairy owner Todd Tuls — his son T.J. will run the 160-acre, 5,000-plus cow operation in Bradford Township — runs his two large farms and came away impressed.
“I had heard about Todd and his business for about 10 years and was excited to visit his place,” McClellan said. “From what I saw, he runs a top-notch operation. To design something like he’s done, you have to build from the ground up, especially in handling those kinds of numbers. I mean, he’ll have more than 10 times what I’m doing.”
But all farmers — big or small — face unique challenges, McClellan said.
“From my side, I’m not worried about the competition or that his operation will lower the price of milk,” he said. “I believe we all have to stand on our own two feet.”
Only time will tell how the market plays out, and circumstances could change drastically depending on what happens with the Larson Acres case. But arguably the biggest current concern appears to be regulating center-pivot irrigators to empty manure storage lagoons.
Every town in Rock County has created ordinances that would require operators to obtain conditional-use permits to pump waste out of storage and spray it onto growing crops. Tuls’ original plan called for nearly a dozen such pivots, but he eventually eliminated them. He still could apply to use them in the future.
Weidensee said the Walworth County Zoning Agency has established a one-year moratorium on center-pivot irrigators while asking the state to come up with uniform standards.
“The center pivots are the contentious part, and it’s not covered,” Weidensee said of the siting law.
Logterman said this is fairly uncharted territory in Wisconsin.
“If you don’t have policies in place … like the old saying, ‘You can’t close the barn door after the cows get out,’” Logterman said.
Wayne Redenius, Richmond Township chairman since 1999, agreed with Logterman’s sentiments. To that end, the town board has sent a resolution to the county zoning agency about regulating pivot use.
“We said, ‘Let’s look at all of this.’ We took this step because it was the only avenue we have available to us right now,” Redenius said. “There’s a lot of controversial information out there, and it’s hard to sort through it all, on both sides of the equation.
“Township residents are worried, a lot of it because of the unknown.”
|Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 14:10|