Rural community seeks to control its fate in the face of large livestock facilities

The township at the heart of the industrial farm is completing the study and considering its options.

Photo courtesy of Laketown Township

Laketown Township in northern Polk County didn’t want factory farms 10 years ago, and it’s worried about it now. The city’s comprehensive plan adopted in 2009 called on it to “discourage and consider banning” factory farms, as part of its goal to maintain rural character.

More than half of Laketown’s land is zoned as farmland, but nothing like the large ranching facilities that are now considering moving here.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) were not an immediate concern a decade ago, although the authors of the plan thought they were worth mentioning. But today, the township is trying to protect itself from an industry that is targeting northwestern Wisconsin.

In nearby Trade Lake Township, an Iowa-backed company has proposed a 26,000-animal pig CAFO, raising red flags for residents. Cumberland LLC’s proposal has the potential to pave the way for other facilities in the surrounding area, including Laketown, where owners have already received inquiries.

Cumberland recently revealed that his operation would produce about nine million gallons of manure each year, which would be spread on surrounding fields as fertilizer. These practices often cause runoff into lakes and rivers, as well as contamination of groundwater.

Like Trade Lake Township, Laketown Township also drains to the Trade River and eventually to the St. Croix.

Map by Sainte-Croix 360

The targeted counties attempt to adopt their own policies to manage CAFOs, although limited in their authority by the State of Wisconsin. The neighboring townships of Trade Lake and Eureka have passed their own local ordinances, and now Laketown hopes to join them.

They say tighter regulations are needed because, for example, Polk County’s CAFO ordinance still allows CAFO operators to spread manure within 25 feet of a lake or stream.

Last month, the township committee reviewing CAFO released its report on the impacts and potential issues. It also included recommendations to protect existing farms, the township’s namesake waters, and the quality of life for community members.

Click here to see the full report (PDF)

It is now in the hands of the town hall. The council passed a moratorium in 2019 on large new or expanded livestock facilities to allow time for study. It expired this month.

With the report in hand, the board has three main ways to proceed. The committee did not suggest trying to outright ban CAFOs in the township, which it probably cannot legally do. Recommendations focus on facility regulation and public participation.

First, the council could amend an existing order to include CAFOs and require companies to provide a “damage deposit” for pollution cleanup or facility closure if the company is unable to to do. It could also include requirements to reduce impacts such as odor.

Second, Laketown could require a permit to operate a large livestock facility, focused on where it would be located. This permit could include restrictions to manage odours, runoff, setbacks and manure management.

Third, township supervisors could pass a special ordinance regulating CAFOs, like those passed by the townships of Trade Lake and Eureka last year. This would allow them to restrict the operations of the facility.

For example, the Township of Eureka ordinance directs the city council to issue a permit only if “the proposed operations, with or without conditions, will protect public health (including human and animal health), safety and property -be general, will prevent pollution and the creation of private nuisances and public nuisances, and preserve the quality of life, the environment, existing small livestock and other agricultural operations.

Because the state of Wisconsin limits what local governments can do to restrict CAFOs, elected officials have been reluctant to risk adopting policies that could expose them to lawsuits. Farm groups threatened last year to sue Polk County if it forwarded certain policies for review.

The Laketown report points out that strict ordinances in neighboring Trade Lake and Eureka townships were based on an ordinance passed in Bayfield County in 2015. These policies effectively prevented the implementation of a proposed CAFO. The DNR challenged it in 2017, but a court ruled the policies were legal.

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About Keneth T. Graves

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