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Many oppose permit for CAFO’s expansion at DNR hearing
Wild Rose Dairy
Wild Rose Dairy seeks permits and expansion
WILD ROSE DAIRY has applied to the DNR for a renewal of their WPDES permit, which has been expired since 2015. They are also seeking approval of their plans to expand the number of animal units at the facility over the next two years.

LAFARGE - Three of the 17 citizens who testified at the recent Wild Rose Dairy water quality permit hearing spoke in favor of the DNR reissuing the permit, and approving the confined animal feeding operation’s (CAFO) plans to expand. The rest of the hearing participants spoke in opposition. The hearing was held on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Of the three speaking in support of reissuance, two have direct ties to the dairy. Attorney David Abt is a co-owner of the facility, and Dale Pertzborn is the Westby banker whose bank will finance the dairy’s expansion. Doug Olson of Cashton also spoke in favor of the permit reissuance and proposed expansion. 

Jim Mlsna from the Monroe County dairy CAFO East Town Dairy, and Kevin Walleser from the Vernon County dairy CAFO WallStone Holsteins both participated in the hearing, but did not speak.

A number of people testifying called for the dairy to be required to seek an ‘individual’ versus a ‘general’ WPDES permit. They said that according to the DNR’s website, an individual permit would require an environmental review.

The Independent-Scout had a follow up phone conversation with Eric Struck and Tyler Dix of the DNR, which shed more light on this topic.

“To start off with, in the early days of the CAFO WPDES program, there was only an individual permit,” Struck explained. “Then in the 2000s the general permit was added for CAFOs that were essentially cookie-cutters of one another, within certain size limits and complexities of operation.”

Struck explained that Wild Rose Dairy has always had an individual permit, and that most CAFOs in the state have individual permits.

“When specific dairy operations are issued general permit coverage, they do not require environmental review since this larger assessment was already conducted,” DNRs Tyler Dix clarified.  “When an individual permit is applied for, then review of the permit application helps determine what level of environmental review is necessary.”

Struck said that the best way for citizens to provide input into what factors should be looked at in the environmental review for Wild Rose Dairy’s individual WPDES permit is to submit those comments in the hearing process.

 Comments can be accepted until Friday, Oct. 23, at 4:30 p.m., and should be submitted via e-mail or over the phone to: Eric Struck, WDNR Senior Wastewater Specialist, 608-275-3485,

Issues raised

Issues raised in the hearing were:

• poor management, failure to follow the terms of their WPDES permit to protect water quality, manure spills and lack of timely reporting, and failure to renew their permit in a timely fashion

• compromised manure storage structure and inadequate feed storage leading to pollution

• manure storage structure, facility impervious surface analysis, and manure spreading plan using outdated Atlas-14 data from 2012 – not adequate to deal with the increasingly large rainfalls the area has seen. Some believe these increased rain amounts are due to climate change, and concentrated animal agriculture contributes to climate change because of the methane emissions from stored manure

• lack of adequate acreage for winter/emergency spreading of manure, lack of adequate soil testing, and fields rented for spreading close to surface waters

• the karst geology underlying the dairy means that it is a sensitive area, and that the groundwater aquifers are more vulnerable to pollution, and the geologic instabilities of karst geology make it risky to site heavy impoundments because the rock below could collapse

• surface water quality has and could continue to be impacted by the CAFO – the health and quality of the area’s trout fishery is beneficial to the area’s economy

• WPDES permits do not protect neighbors rights to maintain property values, protect their wells from contamination, pay to remediate any contamination of their wells, or ensure that excessive draws on the aquifer by a CAFO high capacity well don’t cause their well to go dry

• the dairy’s poor performance in living up to the terms of their permit has damaged its goodwill value in the community and eroded trust. The perception is that the WDNRs standards are not strong enough, and enforcement is inadequate. No penalties have yet been assessed for the dairy’s two manure spills in 2017 and 2019

• the permit does not protect townships from excessive wear and tear on their roads, and the expense of maintaining them. The dairy did not inform the Towns of Webster and Stark about their intent to expand, and there is a feeling that there has been a lack of transparency

• farming is an important and appreciated part of the local economy, but CAFOs and overproduction focused on exports cause small and mid-size family farmers to go out of business. This results in fewer families sending their kids to area schools, less property taxes, and fewer patrons for local businesses

Wild Rose Dairy expansion map
THIS MAP shows the de-tails of the Wild Rose Dairy plans for expansion. The plan includes construction of a new barn, as well as two new manure storage lagoons.

Poor management

Joan Peterson, who lives on Green Hollow Road in rural LaFarge, just below the dairy was the first to testify at the hearing.

“The DNR needs to conduct an environmental impact study (EIS) to evaluate whether the geology where the dairy is located is suitable for a CAFO operation,” Peterson said. “The issue of the two manure spills and the dairy’s poor management is relevant to whether or not the permit should be reissued.”

Peterson observed that the dairy had delayed reporting the 2017 manure spill to the DNR for 24 hours, in violation of the terms of their permit. 

“Wild Rose Dairy has a record of ongoing, habitual, non-compliance,” Peterson said. “If their record is not bad enough to deny them a permit, how bad does it have to get?”

George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF), and former Wisconsin DNR Secretary, was the second person to testify at the hearing.

“At WWF, we don’t oppose all CAFOs, but we do oppose those that are likely to cause damage,” Meyer said. “We oppose reissuance of the Wild Rose Dairy permit because the dairy is located in a sensitive area, and because they have repeatedly demonstrated an inability to manage their operation consistent with the terms of their water quality permit and environmental standards.”

LaFarge attorney and Town of Whitestown board chairman George Wilbur testified.

“Of the many reasons to deny Wild Rose Dairy a permit, the most important is the law,” Wilbur said. “The dairy has been in substantial non-compliance with the terms of their permit, with their unauthorized increase in the number of animal units, two manure spills in three years, and delay in reporting one of the spills. Laws demand compliance, and what we’ve seen from Wild Rose Dairy is substantial non-compliance. For this reason, the permit should be denied.”

Viroqua Common Council member Tanja Birke expressed concern about the DNR’s process for reissuing permits, and the standards they use.

“There is no expectation of protection of water quality if this permit is reissued,” Birke said. “DNR’s fact sheet states that the dairy is in compliance, but yet it doesn’t have enough land for winter spreading, some of its fields for spreading are directly adjacent to the Kickapoo River, their feed storage runoff is not up to code, and they have more animal units that they’re supposed to on a permit that has been expired since 2015.”

Town of Webster resident Tom Lukens was also concerned about mismanagement and failure to comply with the terms of the permit.

“Wild Rose Dairy has a terrible record of compliance with the terms of their permit,” Lukens said. “Their nutrient management plan is out of date, they’ve had two manure spills one of which they delayed in reporting, they failed to timely apply for a permit reissuance, their manure storage facility is in disrepair, they’ve been cited for silage leachate, and they’ve had animal welfare issues.”

Janet Kruk, who lives on Green Hollow Road below the dairy, had this to say.

“Expansion of Wild Rose Dairy is an accident waiting to happen,” Kruk said. “Others who are not speaking today are also opposed, for instance the guys who have to maintain our township roads. Expansion is a supremely bad idea, and this area is not suitable for CAFOs – not everything belongs everywhere.”

Genoa dairy farmer Travis Klinkner also spoke to oppose Wild Rose Dairy’s permit reissuance and plans for expansion.

“I support dairy farmers, but I also agree with the other people that have spoken before me,” Klinkner said. “As a dairy farmer, I know that I am responsible for my actions, and I know I need to be a good steward of the land. Wild Rose Dairy has failed to follow through on that promise. I’d like to see Wild Rose Dairy succeed with what they already have, and build trust back with the community. We’re all in this together, and we need to care for the land and water together. Please revoke the permit, deny the expansion, and help the farmer going forward.”

Dairy co-owner David Abt spoke about the history of the dairy. He said that Art Thelen’s grandfather has started it in 1932, in the 1940s they had 150 cows, in the 1980s they had 300 cows, and in 1997, they built a new facility for 700 cows.

“For 18 years, things went fine, but in 2015 we were notified that the feed storage pad was no longer adequate – an expense of between $500,000 and one million dollars,” Abt said. “Then, we were told that the cattle couldn’t be on the open lot any more, and we needed to build a new barn, and we were told that our manure storage structure needed to be inspected, and possibly lined with cement. That will all be a several million dollar expense, and that is why we need to expand in order to pay for all of that. It is not greed – our plans to expand are motivated by the need to comply.”

Abt said that the DNR had lost the dairy’s permit application in 2015, and this is the fifth year in a row that they have been attempting to be reissued a permit. He said that it had cost them $280,000.

Westby banker Dale Pertzborn spoke in favor of the permit reissuance and approval of the expansion plan.

“I’ve been the banker for Wild Rose Dairy since 2012, and all the people involved in the dairy - Arthur Thelen, David Abt, and Dustin Harris – are good people and great stewards of the land,” Pertzborn said. “I don’t make any excuses for their failure to timely renew their permit, but they’ve been following the rules even so.”

He said that the two spills that had occurred were not the fault of the dairy, but the fault of K&D Hauling of Sparta. He said the dairy had “promptly cured those matters.” He explained that their expansion plan would remediate all of their violations, and would result in a safer facility.

Doug Olson of Cashton had this to say:

“If it wasn’t for those two manure spills, we’d be having a very different conversation today,” Olson said. “Those spills were none of the dairy’s doing, and this whole thing is ridiculous – you should take a tour of the Mlsna and Walleser dairies.”

Inadequate structures

Joan Peterson talked about the issues with inadequate manure storage and feed pad structures.

“The current lagoon is falling apart, and it is polluting now, as is the inadequate silage storage pad,” Peterson said. “Not only that, but there is runoff from the calf barn in Green Hollow.”

Rainfall and runoff

A new study, commissioned by USDA-NRCS, and undertaken by researchers from UW-Madison, documents that rainfall definitions for storm events in the Driftless Region have been changing rapidly in recent years. The study was commissioned as part of the watershed study about dam failures in August of 2018. It shows that traditional rainfall definitions seem to be shifting down one level, so for instance the ‘100-year storm’ is becoming the ’50-year storm.’

DNR and DATCP use NOAA Atlas 14 rainfall data to determine the specifications for things like manure and silage storage structures, facility impervious analyses, and even nutrient management planning. The data is from 2012.

Joan Peterson commented that the rainfall data used for specifications for manure storage structures is outdated. She said that DNR should require specifications that could accommodate “12 inches in 24 hours.”

George Meyer also asked that the DNR “apply stricter design standards using updated precipitation data.”

Tom Lukens said that “the required design specifications for manure storage structures rely on outdated Atlas 14 data from 2012, and the DNR should require design specifications in accordance with new data from Dr. Eric Booth’s study.”

Crawford Stewardship Project’s Forest Jahnke also weighed in on the topic.

“Our area is mainly a lot of highly erodible land, and we’ve experienced tremendous rainfall events and flooding in recent years,” Jahnke said. “Design specifications need to account for current and anticipated increases in precipitation amounts and intensity.”

Ben Wilson with Citizen Action of Wisconsin said “we need to stand up to protect our water in Wisconsin, and a design specification for a manure storage structure that can accommodate five inches of rain in 24 hours is inadequate.”

Dairy co-owner David Abt said, “we do seem to be experiencing increased rainfalls in recent years, and I don’t know why. Some would say it is due to climate change. But, the designs for our manure structures will allow for 400 days of storage.”

Nutrient management

Another major contention is that the dairy does not have adequate land available for winter or emergency spreading, and that some of their fields are immediately adjacent to surface bodies of water such as the Kickapoo River.

Joan Peterson said that though the dairy claims to “knife in” the manure they apply, she said she has seen some fields where that had not been done. As far as the allegation that the manure spills were not the dairy’s fault, she said “you are not taking responsibility for the consequences of your operation – the contractor works for you.”

George Meyer said that there had been “inadequate soil testing” on the fields where manure would be applied. He also said that “substantial upgrades would be required in the dairy’s management of their contractors.”

Charles Spademan of Coulee Region Trout Unlimited (CRTU) also weighed in on the topic.

“We oppose reissuance of the permit until three conditions are met," Spademan said. “First, the outstanding enforcement actions need to be resolved and the deficiencies cured; second, DNR needs to ensure that the manure will be spread on appropriately sited land/geology; and third, we need to see proper science-based oversight of the operation.”

David Abt said “we protect water quality through use of contour strips, and knife the manure in. We are also discontinuing use of drag line hoses except on fields close to the dairy, up on the ridge.”

Karst geology

Karst geology is a fractured bedrock, overlain by a shallow depth of soil to bedrock, which allows water and nutrients from the surface to percolate down into groundwater. In the Driftless Region, aquifers are located in sandstone layers of the bedrock column, and these layers move water through them very slowly. This means that once contaminants get into them, they stay in them for many human lifetimes.

Joan Peterson said “our region’s karst geology alone is reason enough to deny the permit.”

George Meyer said that “the geology must be investigated before a permit is issued.”

Tanja Birke said “I’m in favor of small farms, businesses, and making money. However, those businesses have an obligation not to cause harm, and it is the duty of the government to ensure that businesses are not harming the resources that are owned by all of us.”

Tom Lukens said “a thorough environmental review is needed before this permit can be issued, and an environmental review will show the issues with karst geology that the dairy faces in this location.”

Forest Jahnke also weighed in on the issue.

“In this area, our groundwater has an extreme susceptibility to contamination because of our karst geology,” Jahnke said. “It is a fractured bedrock overlain by shallow soils. In eastern Wisconsin, the state’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ standards for runoff have been shown not to be protective in an area with karst geology, and the Driftless is even more vulnerable because our aquifers are located in sandstone. Once aquifers located in sandstone are polluted, they are polluted forever.”

Dale Pertzborn said “I’m not a geologist, but my impression is that most of the state has karst geology. The main thing is that the manure storage structure is lined with clay, and so it is above the geology in this area.”

Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo described his 2009 study of the geology of Viroqua township, and specifically of the geology underlaying Wild Rose Dairy. Rodolfo and a team of geologists used a methodology to map the karst features under the dairy called electric resistivity. He said that using this method they had documented areas of karstic collapse under the area where the dairy is located, and where its manure is spread.

“The Driftless Region with its karst geology is totally unsuitable for heavy impoundments of any kind – be they for manure or flood control,” Rodolfo said. “Eventually, the area under the impoundment will collapse due to the karstic fracturing of the geology, and in the case of a manure storage structure, that will cause a groundwater pollution catastrophe.”

Monroe County Board Supervisor and member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union State Board Jen Schmidt also weighed in.

“I appreciate hearing from David Abt and Dale Pertzborn,” she said. “However, I don’t think that large dairies with concentrated liquid manure work in our area. I would like the banker to rethink why pushing expansion is the only answer. We need to value our land and water – the community is depending on it.”

David Abt said “we are paying attention to the karst geology – and given the whole area is karstic, where else could we locate our operation?”

Surface water/economy

George Meyer said “the dairy is located on a high ridge overlooking two high quality trout streams, and there have now been two manure spills from this dairy that have killed fish. Our members fund trout stream restoration through our trout stamp license fees, and this is a resource we want to see protected.”

Charles Spademan of CRTU pointed out that a 2016 study shows that trout fishing brings $1.6 billion per year into the Driftless Region economy, and also provides jobs.

Janet Kruk stated that allowing the CAFO to expand would damage the economy for tourism and organic farming, and harm families, retired people and laborers who live in the area.

Dale Pertzborn said that the dairy is a “good corporate citizen, who offers local people jobs, and which patronizes local businesses.”


Viroqua business owner Alicia Leinberger had a lot to say about DNR enforcement and standards used in permitting CAFOs.

“There’s really no one except the business owner and his banker on this call who is saying this is a good idea,” Leinberger said. “This dairy is asking for an expansion without having gained the trust of the community. Our natural assets are held in public trust for all of us, and yet it seems we have no way to protect ourselves given the nature of the state laws governing CAFOs. Permits get approved for these operations no matter what. It is time for the state to stop allowing these operations to pollute, and we need to protect our rural economies by stopping overproduction focused on serving export markets. I urge the DNR to draw a line and to begin to say no. If a business owner can’t make money without polluting, then they need to find another business.”