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Farmers and citizens gather to discuss threats to rural health and prosperity
Professor John Ikerd provided the keynote address at the Forum on Industrial Agriculture in the Driftless on Saturday, Jan. 20. In his talk, Economic Colonization of Rural America, Ikerd emphasized that the right to health, good food, and clean air and water are included in the Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He pointed out that these are described as "unalienable rights" which the Declara-tion says have been given to all human beings by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect.

DRIFTLESS REGION - Rural prosperity, health, community values and protection of water and air quality were the topics that brought together farmers and interested citizens from the Driftless Area at two events on Saturday, Jan. 20.

The two events, ‘A Breakfast Conversation about the Future of Family Farming,’ and the ‘Forum on Industrial Agriculture in the Driftless’ were held in Viroqua and Boscobel. Together these events attracted more than 300 participants. They were also live-streamed online.

Sustain Rural Wisconsin, Valley Stewardship Network and the Crawford Stewardship Project organized the events.

Agricultural Economics Professor John Ikerd, and Missouri farmer Scott Dye, addressed both groups. The two were joined at the forum in Boscobel by Mary Dougherty of Sustain Rural Wisconsin, retired University of Illinois hydro-geologist Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, pastured-pork farmer Mike Mueller, and Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney Tressie Kamp.

The most immediate issue that brought the group together was what they characterized as the imminent expansion of the industrial hog industry, dominated by large multi-national corporations, into Wisconsin.

Meeting presenters alleged that the industry has reached capacity in neighboring Iowa and Minnesota. They said that the industry there has maxed out, and is fleeing epidemics of disease caused by overcrowding and polluted waterways. For these reasons, they are setting their sights on expansion into the Driftless Region of Wisconsin.

Three dozen facilities

The concerns of the meeting organizers, participants and presenters is based in a set of facts that seems to present convincing evidence that the Driftless Area will soon be home to a huge expansion of the hog industry. Development of two large hog farrowing facilities in Grant County, recently permitted by the DNR, are expected to house 11,000 sows which will produce approximately 280,000 feeder pigs per year.

Crawford Stewardship Project’s Forest Jahnke reported that the Timberwolf facility in Grant County literally has a manure lagoon that rests directly on top of a large known sinkhole described as “stable.”

“Sinkholes in our fractured underlying karst geology in this region are formed when underground caves collapse,” Dr. Rodolfo explained. “There is no such thing as a stable sinkhole – the idea is ridiculous on its face.”

Probably not coincidentally, a hog slaughter facility is planned in Vernon County, between the cities of Viroqua and Westby. The facility is initially projected to slaughter 700 hogs per day or about 280,000 hogs per year.

According to Scott Dye, because hogs don’t transport well, and because producers don’t make money transporting long distances to slaughter, it is expected that finishing facilities will be sited within a 50-mile radius of the proposed plant in Vernon County. This would mean potential locations in all of LaCrosse, Vernon, Crawford, Richland and Monroe counties, as well as portions of Trempealeau, Jackson, Adams, Iowa, Sauk, and Grant counties.

“Based on past history, we expect the facilities to be constructed to house 2,499 hog animal units each, one  short of the 2,500 animal unit threshold for requiring a DNR permit,” Dye said. “If this approach is taken, that would mean construction of a minimum of 36 finishing facilities in the targeted area.”

And that is projected to be just the beginning. Pipestone Systems (PS), the company that has been permitted to operate the two farrowing facilities in Grant County, is the fastest growing hog production company in the nation. The company has added 70,000 sows to their operations in the last two years, operating in eight states.

A cautionary tale

Missouri farmer Scott Dye, now a Water Ranger field organizer with the Sustainable Rural Agriculture Project, has already experienced the devastating effects of the expansion of industrial hog facilities into his neighborhood. Dye’s family has a 300-acre farm in Missouri. In 1994, they got a new neighbor – an 80,000-head pork finishing business.

Originally owned by a U.S. firm, the company changed hands several times, and is now owned by WH Group, a Chinese company that controls 25 percent of the nation’s pork production. The operation produces 2.5 million hogs per year, with 72 buildings and nine, 40-acre liquid manure lagoons, which hold a total of 25 million gallons of liquid manure.

“I do the work that I do because I don’t want to see what happened to my community happen to anyone else’s,” Dye told the audience. “This industry’s expansion into our community in Missouri has ripped apart our social fabric, destroyed our property values, and air and water quality, and turned neighbor against neighbor.”

Dye said that while all the profits go to companies outside of the community, all the problems are left for the community to solve. He described those problems as diminished property values and tax bases, impoverished school systems, vacant buildings on Main Street, polluted air and water, young people leaving, poverty, crime, drug abuse, and a spike in chronic and fatal health problems.

Dye directed meeting participants to a You Tube video that details the events in his community. The video can be found online by searching for ‘And on This Farm, Part One.’

Dye described the constraints on the two corporations currently in play in the region. Those two corporations are Pipestone Systems (PS), and Premium Iowa Pork (PIP). As noted earlier, PS was recently permitted to build the two farrowing facilities in Grant County expected to produce 280,000 feeder pigs per year. PIP is the hog slaughtering company, with a long history of violation of humane slaughter and water quality standards in Iowa. PIP plans to build the 280,000 hog-per-year slaughter facility in Vernon County.

“These companies don’t make money transporting hogs, manure or wastewater from slaughtering long distances,” Dye emphasized. “So the questions before your communities are where will the hogs be raised, where will the liquid manure be spread, and what community will accept the wastewater from the slaughter plant?”

We got it wrong

Retired agriculture professor John Ikerd spoke at the farmer conversation event in Viroqua, and delivered the keynote address at the forum in Boscobel. In Boscobel, he received a standing ovation after his fiery speech.

Ikerd described his disillusionment with the outcomes of the push for consolidation and growth in U.S. agriculture.

“I grew up on a family farm in Missouri in the 1950s, and it was a hopeful and prosperous time in rural America,” Ikerd said. “That optimism propelled me into my career in agriculture, where I believed we would help rural America to achieve lasting prosperity and fulfill our mission to ensure an affordable food supply to the nation.”

Ikerd watched as American agriculture transitioned to the modern farming model of larger operations, with increasing reliance on technology and fossil fuels for fertilizer, and insect and weed control. Farmers were encouraged to take on debt, and many smaller operators went out of business. He was shocked into a different way of viewing the situation in the farm crisis of the 1980s.

“I saw that the farmers that were in the biggest trouble were the ones that took our advice to get big or get out,” Ikerd said. “We have not achieved what we set out to do with the expansion into industrial agriculture. Instead of family farmers we have large investor-owned, corporations, producing agricultural commodities, and our farmers have become corporate tractor drivers and hog house janitors.”

Ikerd cited the steady increase of food insecurity or hunger, where one in eight U.S. citizens are food insecure, and one in six children experience hunger, as the fundamental basis for his transformation to advocating for sustainable agriculture or “balanced farming.”

“In the 50s and 60s I watched how quickly the food production system was transformed,” Ikerd said. “Change can happen very quickly, and the sustainable food transformation is already much further ahead now than the industrial food system was in its early phases.”

Ikerd pointed out that the Driftless Region is already an established leader in this transformation.

“This area is the cradle of the organic food industry, with more organic farmers per capita than anywhere else in the nation,” Ikerd pointed out. “This area has generated national growth in organic, natural, sustainable and pasture-based family farmer food production, which makes it all the more important to protect.”

Ikerd pointed out that fully a third of American food consumers are demanding alternatives to the food produced by the industrial food system.

A viable alternative

Mike Mueller, pastured pork farmer and organizer of the new ‘Driftless AreaBack to the Land Co-op,’ told meeting participants that there is a viable alternative to industrial hog farms in the area.

“Pastured production eliminates the problem with accumulation of large, dangerous, lagoons of manure,” Mueller emphasized. “It’s about developing a model of pork production which ensures a fair price for the farmer, treats the hogs humanely, and protects our water and air.”

Mueller explained that it is more than possible with the farm acres available to produce the kind of pork that consumers are increasingly demanding. It’s estimated that 50 to 70 percent of America’s farmland will turn over to a new generation of farmers in the next 20-25 years. The question is who will own that farmland, and how will it be farmed?

“I call our style of production ‘Back to the Future of Farming’,” Mueller said. “It’s an old, tried and true, safe and humane system of production, aided by all the affordable, labor-saving developments of modern technology.”

Mueller announced that the cooperative has a recruitment meeting planned at Johnson’s One Stop in Seneca on Thursday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. For interested producers, Mueller can be reached at 608-412-0725 or pioneergardens

Citizen action

Citizens are finding ways to be creative in using local control to protect their communities and ensure that their community’s values are reflected in the local and county ordinances adopted to regulate agricultural production.

“It’s a pretty restrictive legal environment for Wisconsin residents,” explained Tressie Kamp, staff attorney for the Midwest Environmental Advocates. “The Livestock Facility Siting Law adopted by the state in 1994, and the DATCP rule, ATCP 51, which followed it one year later, took away most of the local control traditionally exercised at the county and township levels.”

Both Wisconsin and Iowa have ‘right-to-farm’ laws, which require that counties will establish ‘agricultural sacrifice’ zones. In those areas, municipalities are prohibited from establishing regulations that limit agricultural activities.

“Farming activities in agricultural sacrifice zones have more in common with heavy industries like mining or manufacturing than they do with traditional family farming,” Ikerd explained. “The only difference is that agriculture is essentially unregulated. Right-to-Farm was never meant for industrial agriculture. Now, instead, it has really come to mean Right-to-Harm.”

 Sustain Rural Wisconsin’s (SRW) president, Mary Dougherty, shared some of the experiences her community in Bayfield County had in finding creative ways to exercise local control within the current regulatory framework.

Dougherty pointed to SRW’s website where a listing of ordinances adopted by counties and towns that have survived legal scrutiny by the state are listed.

The townships of Webster and Harmony in Vernon County have recently enacted ordinances, based on examples from SRW’s website, that call for a 12-month moratorium of siting of CAFOs in their townships. The year-long moratorium is intended to give the townships time to form a task force, which will hopefully stimulate conversations in the community to establish their shared values, and look at the capacity of the townships to establish and administer a regulatory framework.

“Ordinances and laws are just an expression of the shared values of the community,” Dougherty emphasized. “You have to take the time to talk to your neighbors, to find out what their values are, and to establish a community consensus before moving to adopting ordinances.”

Dougherty, based on her experiences in Bayfield County, advocates for a three-step approach for other communities in dealing with the problems posed by industrial agriculture.

“First you have to answer the question – who is the Driftless Region; second, what values are agreed upon in the region,” Dougherty detailed. “Only after these conversations have been had, should the citizens of the region seek to answer the third question of what can the region do to protect what it values.”

Be creative

Dougherty’s community has adopted numerous ordinances in Bayfield County in a successful effort to prevent an Iowa-based hog company from building a facility there. The facility was projected to threaten the safety of drinking water for the City of Ashland.

While some of the ordinances adopted have become embattled in the courts, others have withstood state scrutiny. One approach taken was to prohibit the aerial spreading of liquid manure. Other communities are adopting ordinances like those adopted in Vernon County, in Webster and Harmony Townships, to hit the pause button for a year while the community takes the time to come together and decide what kinds of agriculture they want in their townships.

Monte Marti of Lansing, Iowa spoke to the group about the trend in Iowa where neighboring landowners are adopting covenants to their deeds, which prohibit spreading of liquid manure.

Monte described a group of neighbors, Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water (NEICAW), who have formed a covenant, signing the legal promise to each other that they and any future owners of their land will not allow a CAFO to be built on the property and will not allow liquid manure to be spread on those acres.

A total of 43 families have joined together to protect 5,500 acres. The covenant needs to be re-recorded at the county courthouse every 21 years, and follows the deed even if the property is sold.

 Sonja Trom Eayrs from Dodge County Concerned Citizens in Minnesota talked about the efforts of their community in Southeast Minnesota to fight against the same companies that are now looking to expand into the Driftless Region.

“The wolf is at your door,” Trom Eayrs said. “You here in the Driftless Region are part of a larger dynamic and your neighbors in Iowa and Minnesota can be your allies.”

More information about the group and their activities can be found on the group’s website, The group also has a Facebook page. On that site, the group has a video, ‘The Dark Side of the Other White Meat.’