VERNON COUNTY - Almost 150 residents of the Viroqua and Westby areas came to learn more about a proposed hog slaughtering facility to be located between the two cities. The meeting took place on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at the Westby Elementary School.
The meeting started with a presentation by Gayle Nielsen of ‘Concerned Citizens for Smart Growth’ (CCSG) about the proposed facility, and some of the concerns around it.
CCSG is a group of concerned citizens who care about their local environment, economic justice for local, family-scale farms, who value-added agri-business, and the quality of life that a rural and resilient community offers. Nielsen reports that rural Wisconsin residents have increasingly seen that quality of life being threatened by large outside interests and corporate agriculture.
Nielsen explained that while the economic health of the region is important, there is a need to look closely at all of the factors that drive the region’s economic success. For instance, the region has become a tourist destination and a sustainable agricultural hub.
Nielsen went on to explain Premium Iowa Pork (PIP), the would-be operator of the proposed facility. The company is a multi-million dollar corporation seeking to locate in the Driftless to create a high end image to market their “premium” pork products.
PIP wants to leverage the organic reputation of the area, and use its abundant natural resources to enhance their image and create increased demand for their product.
“Inevitably, their location here will open the door for the expansion of the pork industry into the southwest corner of Wisconsin,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen pointed out that the company owns swine CAFOs in eastern Iowa and southeast Minnesota.
“They are out of room, and seeking to expand into this area,” Nielsen said.
The company currently manufactures 760,000 hogs per year in Iowa. Company representatives told CCSG they expect to process 700 hogs per day at the proposed facility.
“Where will all those hogs come from?” Nielsen asked.
Nielsen pointed out the history of the DNR’s CAFO regulation in the state.
“Of 218 violations reported to the Wisconsin DNR from 2014 until now, only four were assessed a penalty by the Wisconsin Department of Justice,” Nielsen pointed out. “How is that protecting us?”
Point by point, Nielsen assessed the truth of the economic benefits to locating the facility in Vernon County put forth by the company.
“They say that the facility will provide 50 to 60 local jobs,” Nielsen reported. “But when asked if they would fill those positions with Vernon County residents, they responded that they would try.”
The reality is, that with very few exceptions, Americans simply won’t work in dangerous slaughterhouse jobs that often pay as little as $6.25 to $7 an hour.
Nielsen pointed to a study by Georgeanne M. Artz (2012), ‘Immigration and Meatpacking in the Midwest,’ which demonstrated that the animal slaughtering industry employed 486,000 workers in 2010, of which one-third of were immigrants.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous manufacturing jobs in the U.S., with injuries that include muscular trauma, repetitive motion disease, cuts, and strains.”
“Not only that,” Nielsen pointed out, “but with those jobs comes a documented increase in crime.”
According to a study by the Yale Global Health Review, though other industries used for comparison to the meatpacking industry were nearly identical in other predictors of changes in crime (worker demographics, potential to create social disorganization, and effect on unemployment in the surrounding areas), slaughterhouses outstripped all others in the effect they had on crime. They led not only to a larger increase in overall crime, but, disturbingly, disproportionate increases in violent crime and sexual crime.
Nielsen also pointed to a report from the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University, which demonstrated that when a CAFO comes into a community, it has the effect of crowding out more traditional farmers, and decreasing purchases in local stores.
Another study from Illinois showed that economic growth rates in communities with traditional small and midsize farms are 55 percent higher than in those with CAFOs.”
“And then,” Nielsen explained, “there is the effect on property values in communities with CAFOs.”
Nielsen pointed to a 1996 study by Padgett and Johnson, which found that homes within a half mile of a CAFO decrease in value by 40 percent; homes within one mile decrease in value by 30 percent; within one-and-one-half miles by 20 percent; and within two miles by 10 percent.
The flip side
Nielsen pointed out that introducing an industry into the area which has great potential to harm the area’s natural beauty and resources has great potential to harm a key driver of local economic growth – trout fishing tourism.
“As a business owner in Viroqua and one who relies on the creeks, I am very concerned with the impact of a slaughter house in our area,” said owner of Driftless Angler, Matt Wagner.
“It's impact on tourism, anglers, water, traffic patterns, family farms, and property values has potential to impact me and all of our customers that come to recreate and spend money in our area.”
Wagner pointed meeting participants to the economic impact statement from Trout Unlimited, which documents the millions of dollars that angling brings to our county each year.
The 2016 study documents that direct spending by visiting anglers, government agencies and non-government organizations adds well over $413 million to the Driftless Area economy each year.
The secondary and ripple effects of this spending result in an additional estimated amount of over $670 million added to the Driftless Area economy each year.
The study also reveals that 6,500 jobs across the region are supported by recreational angling, and that the total spending by visiting and resident anglers has increased significantly since 2008.
Overall, Nielsen said the study shows it is estimated that the total spending and economic impact of recreational angling in the Driftless area has increased from $1.1 billion in 2008 to $1.6 billion in 2016.
Forest Jahnke, Crawford Stewardship Project, spoke to the group about the area’s sensitive karst geology.
“Most have heard about Kewaunee County´s issues with groundwater contamination, where 30 percent of private wells contain unsafe water,” Jahnke said.
Large areas of the state have an underlying karst geology. Counties in the state where virtually the entire area is karstic include Crawford, Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette, LaCrosse, Pierce, Richland and Vernon.
Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.
Because of its highly fractured nature, in combination with the type of soil typical to the region, the depth of the soil, the height of the water table, and the prevailing land use management in the area, this type of topography can make a region more susceptible to groundwater contamination.
Although Vernon County is home to only four CAFOs, in early October there was a massive manure spill from the Wild Rose Dairy in Webster Township. The investigation into the spill is ongoing, and the DNR is still withholding information about the magnitude of the spill and potential impacts to ground and surface water.
Fight has to be local
Duke Welter, a Viroqua resident, who works with Trout Unlimited on the Driftless Restoration Project spoke at the meeting.
“The fight has to be done here at this level,” Welter said. “We don’t have much legal leverage, and there are insufficient regulatory rules in place to protect our waters.”
Welter encouraged local residents to push for groundwater protection bills and local zoning. He suggested that concerned citizens work on town boards and the county for help with zoning.
“Keep pressing for answers and help from the county and townships,” Welter said. “The DNR doesn’t have the will or the people to regulate CAFOs.”
Nielsen shared copies of a petition developed by the group, which is to be given to elected representatives at the county, city and township level.
A copy of the petition is available at www.citizensforsmartgrowth.com/petition.
Nielsen also pointed to the ‘Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network’ push for a statewide CAFO moratorium.
Some of the local organizations which have signed on in support of the moratorium include: Gays Mills Area Sportsman’s Club; Town of Clayton, Crawford County; Towns of Hillsboro and Liberty, Vernon County; Trout Unlimited; Coulee Region Trout; Crawford Stewardship Project; and the Valley Stewardship Network.
They join other units of local government and groups of concerned citizens from across the state in seeking a CAFO moratorium.