VERNON COUNTY - Shockwaves rippled through the trout fishing and conservation communities late last week when news of a planned 18,000-bird organic egg facility in the Timber Coulee Creek valley came to light.
Landowner Les Reimer has already begun site preparation for the barn, at the intersections of Olstad Road and Dogwood Lane in the Vernon County Town of Coon. Approval of a building permit was on the Town of Coon Board meeting agenda for Tuesday, July 21.
A Facebook post from Mat Wagner Driftless Angler, reposted by Coulee Region Trout Unlimited, summed up what some of the concerns about the facility are:
“Anyone ever fished on the Olstad Bridge on the Timber Coulee? Well, the Town of Coon has approved the first steps to put a large confined chicken operation (curiously just below the threshold for regulation as a CAFO) in the valley. Yes we need farms, and yes we need food, BUT we also need intelligent choices on where any kind of facility is placed. Watching the disaster of the Coon Creek floods in 2018 and knowing it could happen again, putting in a large livestock facility in the path of high water is a terrible idea! Chicken manure is higher in phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium than other livestock. A major pollutant to trout streams! Add to that the contamination of wells with the high levels of E. coli and Samonella (and potentially arsenic and copper) that these facilities leach, and you have a multi-layered recipe for disaster! Not to mention the stench that will devastate property values and ruin the appeal of the valley.“Please write to the Town of Coon supervisor Orlan Bakkum and tell him how important the fishing is, and the negative impact a large facility will have in the area. Please keep your letters and notes polite. Chairman: Orlan Bakkum, 608-452-3370, e-mail: email@example.com."
Timber Coulee Creek is classified by the Wisconsin DNR as an outstanding resource water, and feeds into Coon Creek, which is classified as exceptional. Coon Creek also has a storied history as the location of the nation’s first watershed project.
Since the 1970s, the creek has been the focus of numerous stream restoration efforts by the Wisconsin DNR, and private groups like Trout Unlimited.
Last, but not least, the area was inundated with catastrophic flooding in August of 2018 when three flood control dams in Monroe County breached after a catastrophic rainfall event. The breached dams sent a tsunami of water cascading into the watershed. For all these reasons, there is concern about the choice to locate an animal livestock operation in the valley.
Les and Susie Reimer, and their three children moved from Manitoba, Canada to Vernon County with dreams of starting a family farming business that would allow Les to spend more time with his young family. In Canada, he had farmed beef cattle and grain, and worked construction on the side.
The Reimers purchased their property in the Timber Coulee Creek valley from organic dairy operator Martina Chamberlain. The property extends on both sides of the creek, in both Vernon and LaCrosse counties. Working with the Reimers in development of the facility are Ernie Peterson of Cashton Farm Supply and Eric Nottestad of the Genoa State Bank.“We are peace-loving, Christian people,” Les Reimer said of his family. “Farmers are here to protect the environment, and it is farmers that allow anglers to have access to the trout streams. We want to be good neighbors and good community members.”
The number of layers to be housed in the facility is 18,000. According to a DATCP worksheet for calculation of animal units, laying hens equal 0.01 animal units. This means that the facility will contain 180 animal units, below the threshold of 500 animal units, which would require a Livestock Facility Siting Permit from the county. It is also below the 1,000 animal unit threshold that would require a WPDES permit from the Wisconsin DNR.
Les Reimer says that he and Ernie Peterson are pursuing organic certification through MOSA, and that the eggs generated would be organic brown eggs. He said that the facility would generate 85 tons of dry litter per year, which would be moved out of the facility daily on a conveyor belt, and stored on a roofed concrete pad.
The manure will be distributed to organic producers, of which he says he currently has five interested. One of the producers alone has indicated that they will take up to 200 tons. He says that there is between 300-400 acres of land available for spreading of the manure.
When asked about the expected mortality rate of birds in the facility, Reimer responded that it` would be “low.” These dead birds will also be part of the facility’s waste stream.According to the Open Philanthropy website, the 60-week mortality rate for an egg-producing facility caged or cage-free is about five percent. So, by this calculation, the expected mortality rate of the facility would be 900-1,000 chickens per year, or 5,000 pounds at five pounds per bird, or two-and-one-half tons of dead poultry.
As far as his conservation concerns with the siting of his facility, Reimer emphasized that the facility site was not inundated with flood waters in the August 2018 flood event as it sits 17 feet above the floodplain. He said the site is distant from Timber Coulee Creek, and in between is dense vegetative cover. He said they plan to plant trees around the facility to screen it from public view.Regarding any air quality issues, Reimer said that the facility will be a dry barn, and will not generate a liquid slurry manure. He said that extra insulation is planned to help with odor control, and that the manure will not be sitting around for long.
When questioned about the perennial flow feeder creek that runs just below the facility before joining with Timber Coulee Creek, Reimer responded that his children play in that creek and “have found no fish in it.” Some trout fishing enthusiasts say that the feeder is a trout spawning area, where trout are present in the autumn to lay their eggs.
“Farmers are here to grow the environment,” Reimer said. “Our facility will have a berm around the stream, and the manure will be contained.”
The Reimers said that they are very aware of the flooding history of the area, and had talked with their neighbors about the flood of August 2018.
“That was a 1,000-year flood,” Reimer said. “It’s very unlikely that any event of that magnitude will happen again in my lifetime.”
RegulationsQuestions have been raised about the facility, and whether its location makes it subject to either floodplain or shoreland zoning regulations. Others are concerned that it could be located in the hydraulic shadow of flood control dams in Monroe County, which would mean that floodplain zoning would apply. Another question is whether the size of the facility would mean that Reimer would be required to obtain a stormwater construction permit from the Wisconsin DNR. There is also concern about the facility’s proximity to a possible trout spawning waters, and questions have been asked about whether the Dogwood feeder is of concern to WDNR fisheries biologists as “trout water.”
The Vernon County Zoning Department provides the following information regarding development in areas governed by shoreland zoning:
1. A Land Use Permit is required for all development (remodeling, additions, excavating, filling, riprap, etc)
2. There are shoreland setback rules of 35’ feet and 75 feet from the Ordinary High Water Mark.
3. Expansion of a non-conforming use is allowed as follows: Horizontal (landward) or Vertical Expansion–only if principal structure equal to or greater than 35 feet from the Ordinary High-Water Mark. The expanded area must be beyond the 75-foot setback from the Ordinary High-Water Mark. Expansion is Limited to 200 square feet over the life of the structure.
4. Vertical expansion is limited to a height of 35 feet from the adjacent ground elevation.
5. Expansion requires the installation of a code complying septic system/holding tank.
6. Total impervious surface on a lot within the shoreland protection area is limited to 15 percent.
7. Floodplain/Shoreland Affidavit required to be filed with the Register of Deeds.
Because the facility is more than 75 feet from the ordinary high water mark, none of these rules apply.“I have spent considerable time looking into this, and based on my findings the building site was not flooded in 2018, nor is it within the hydraulic shadow of any Vernon County flood control dams,” Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn said. “I have been told that the site is small enough to not require a DNR construction stormwater permit, and it is not in the floodplain. Because of the number of animal units, it also doesn't require a livestock facility-siting permit. Last, our county zoning department doesn't believe that the facility will require an impervious surface analysis.”
Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel stated that he does not believe the hydraulic shadow of any of his county’s flood control dams “extends that far down into the valley.”
Brad Johnson, WDNR wastewater specialist said that only if the footprint of the facility were greater than one acre would a construction stormwater permit be required.
“If the site were one acre or more, then a construction stormwater permit would be required before construction could begin,” Johnson said. “In this process, we would conduct a review of the wetlands and would review the facility’s erosion control plan before issuing a permit.”
Johnson also said that another WDNR department would handle issues specifically related to trout water in the state. He said that he believed that there are special regulations that govern trout streams that are considered ‘outstanding’ or ‘exceptional.’
Since the Independent-Scoutwent to press with this story, Kirk Olson, WDNR Fisheries Biologist with the LaCrosse office had this to report about the ‘Dogwood Feeder’ tributary that runs just below the chicken facility site:“I surveyed the stream last week, since it currently is not classified as trout water and has never been sampled. Our survey indicates that, similar to the many other small Timber Coulee tributaries, it is an important site for juvenile rearing and may also be used for spawning,” Olson reported. “We captured 75 young of the year trout and one adult trout in 100 meters of stream using electrofishing equipment. In addition, the stream is an important source of cold water to Timber Coulee. It was running at 56 degrees farenheit when we sampled it last week, and 1.6 cubic feet per second (i.e. 718 gallons per minute).”
A neighbor’s concerns
A neighbor of the facility, just to the west on Olstad Road, has been quite vocal in his opposition to the siting of the facility.
“Les Reimer is being played by Ernie Peterson,” the neighbor said. “All the locals know that property was under water in the August 2018 flood. Since the last floodplain survey in 1996, there have been three 100-year floods in the valley.”
The neighbor expressed that he believes the Reimers are “seeking the facility at the expense of their neighbors.” He said they have been attempting a public relations campaign, writing letters to their neighbors. He said he had received one such communication himself.
“Aside from my concerns about surface water quality, I am also concerned about odors, air quality issues from the ammonia, and the noise that will come from the constant running of the facility’s fans,” he said. “The manure will be picked up three times per week, which will mean lots of truck traffic on a town road that is not up to that level of traffic. Nor are the required setbacks from the town road being observed.”
The neighbor questioned why the Reimers had chosen to locate the facility in the Vernon County versus the LaCrosse County portion of their property.
“On the Vernon County side, it is all low land along the creek, and there are lots of neighbors,” he said. “On the LaCrosse County side there is higher ground, and no neighbors. I speculate that the decision was made based on the regulations they would face in attempting to locate the facility in LaCrosse County.”
The neighbor is concerned about the increasingly large and frequent rainfalls the area has experienced in the last decade.
“With all these large rains, there is no way that there is not going to be runoff, and the Reimers weren’t here in 2018 to see what happened,” he said. “In every business venture there is risk and reward – in this case the reward is all for one family, and the risk is that if there is a failure, a whole ecosystem could be destroyed. Further, neighbors of the facility face a decrease in their property values, and the township faces overuse of their road.”
The neighbor said that in the 2018 flood, his driveway was completely washed out, and the first floor of the Reimer’s home was completely under water. He pointed out that not all of the water that contributes to flooding comes from upstream.
“In 2018, the dry runs coming off the hillside above were all full of water,” he said. “The hillside is just barely above the site of the facility, with a spring-fed feeder creek that comes off the hillside and runs just below it. I think it’s possible that the 2018 rain event would have swept the whole facility off the hillside.”
The neighbor emphasized that he grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, where his family raised chickens and goats.
“I’m not against agriculture, but the Driftless Region is just special and different,” he said. “Buying my land and building my cabin along Timber Coulee Creek was my dream, and the Reimers are stealing the joy from my life.”
“Why risk one of the most celebrated trout streams in the Midwest?” he asked. “Just downsteam on Coon Creek, the WDNR has put huge resources into preserving and protecting Coon Creek at the Neprud property.”
He said that basically “we can all recognize when something is out of place.” He said that at this point, it all comes down to the town board, with Ernie Peterson and Eric Nottestad pushing them to approve the building permit.
“I am extremely disappointed – my wife and I have two cute kids too – why is one family more important than another family?” he asked. “And the only way that we’ll know for sure that this facility is a disaster is after it becomes a disaster.”
The neighbor said that this all hinges on the romantic notion about organic agriculture, but he says that the rules for organic livestock agriculture have been so weakened that it is basically a complete fallacy. He said that if the Reimers had proposed to build a battery factory, or a strip club, or a pot farm, then everyone would be all up in arms.
He pointed out that “the only real economic growth Vernon County has seen in recent years comes from trout fishing. He asked why an agricultural operation like this should be allowed to be sited in a way that threatens that economic resource.“Believe me, if my property value is injured, I will sue,” he said. “I know that the ‘Right to Farm’ and the nuisance laws are stacked against me, but that’s why it’s the right job for a person who has the time and the money to pursue it.”