Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Sustainable Agriculture

Supporting sustainable agriculture

Wisconsin is famous for its seemingly endless miles of rolling farmland. Traditionally, small family-run farms, often on land passed down through generations, were the norm. However, as farms have become bigger and fewer in the past two decades, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are an increasing percentage of Wisconsin’s dairy and livestock industry.

CAFO impacts on the health of people and our environment

The growth of CAFOs spells trouble for Wisconsin’s water, air, and land resources. In addition to consuming large quantities of water for cattle, CAFOs produce manure in volumes that can contaminate drinking water wells and groundwater with bacteria and nitrates as well as pollute streams, lakes and wetlands with an oversupply of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. This adversely impacts the health of people and aquatic life. The methane, carbon dioxide, and other noxious gases emitted from the manure produced does not just bring a foul odor to the air—it can also lead to respiratory irritation and asthma and contribute to the atmospheric greenhouse effect. The massive clearing of land and the overapplication of nutrients practiced by industrial-scale operations can also lead to soil degradation and erosion.

Midwest Environmental Advocates has assisted concerned citizens across Wisconsin in protecting their homes and communities from these adverse impacts. At the start of the struggle to rein in CAFO-driven pollution in Kewaunee County, where local geology makes groundwater particularly vulnerable to contamination when high volumes of manure are spread on fields, MEA took up the case of the Treml's whose family’s century farmland was across the road from a CAFO where wintertime manure spreading led to such severe groundwater contamination as to make the whole family ill, including their baby daughter who was rushed to the emergency room with bacteria poisoning. Midwest Environmental Advocates succeeded in restricting the responsible CAFO’s destructive practices. MEA then became a part of the successful citizen movement to ban all wintertime manure spreading in Wisconsin. Since then, MEA has also succeeded in helping local residents hold the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources accountable for monitoring and limiting a Kewaunee County CAFO expansion. We are also currently involved in a petition effort under the Safe Drinking Water Act to get EPA to act on the county’s water quality crisis.

Across the rest of Wisconsin, MEA has shown similar commitment to protecting rural citizens from the prospect of industrialized agriculture in their communities through initiatives including advocating for local control over livestock siting licensing.

What makes a difference for sustainable agriculture

Midwest Environmental Advocates believes that building truly sustainable agricultural systems goes beyond buying local and organic food, patronizing community supported agriculture initiatives or even the voluntary conservation practices of a few, good agricultural leaders. It requires a clean government and an independent DNR to effectively monitor agricultural (nonpoint sourced) pollution, enforce environmental laws that protect our water and air, respect local control of siting major industrial livestock operations, and implement state and local policies that put protecting the health of people and the environment first. Embracing meaningful policies and practices of sustainable agriculture leads not only to healthier land but to healthier communities, large and small.

More Sustainable Agriculture News from MEA

Comments on Pinnacle Dairy LLC WPDES permit – On September 26, 2017, Midwest Environmental Advocates asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review and object to a proposed Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination permit for Pinnacle Dairy, LLC. Federal review is necessary because the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ draft pollution permit does not include recommendations by the Natural Resources Conservation Service for groundwater monitoring and other conditions that would help to protect area surface and groundwater resources. On September 22, 2017, MEA and Gordon Stevenson (MEA Board President and retired DNR Chief of Runoff Management) submitted comments to the DNR responding to the agency's conditional approval of the CAFO permit describing why Pinnacle’s plans for livestock manure storage would not protect area surface or groundwater and public health.

MEA signs onto Food & Water Watch petition to EPA - On March 8, 2017 Midwest Environmental Advocates along with Wisconsin group Kewaunee CARES joined Food & Water Watch and dozens of other clean water advocacy groups to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on factory farm pollution and environmental law rollbacks by Congress and under the Trump administration. Groups filed a legal petition which asks EPA to overhaul its regulations for how CAFOs are regulated under the federal Clean Water Act and its permitting program, noting that current rules fail to prevent pollution and protect communities. Full petition (PDF).

The petition asks EPA to

  • remove loopholes that have enabled CAFOs to avoid permitting—especially the agency’s overbroad interpretation of the “agricultural stormwater” exemption from regulation, which has swallowed the rule that CAFOs are point sources that require permits to discharge pollution,
  • to require large corporate integrators that control CAFO practices to obtain permits, instead of just their contract producers, who currently bear the burden of following permits and managing waste,
  • to strengthen permits in several ways, including: requiring pollution monitoring and reporting, as is required of virtually all other industries; restricting waste disposal in order to better protect water quality; and regulating CAFO discharges of a wider range of pollutants than permits currently address, including the heavy metals and pharmaceuticals found in industrial livestock waste.

MEA to DNR: animal unit limit needed at Richfield Dairy, LLC - On January 17, 2017, Midwest Environmental Advocates submitted comments to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources explaining why an animal unit limit should be reinstated in a draft pollution permit renewal for the Richfield Dairy of Milk Source Holdings, Inc. in Adams County. An animal unit cap in a pollution permit is a practical way for the DNR to limit the source of pollution – in this case, manure waste – produced by an industrial livestock facility. In our comments, we explain how a September 2014 court order in a Friends of the Central Sands/Family Farm Defenders case and two other MEA-involved judicial decisions demonstrate the DNR’s authority to set these limits that may ultimately help to protect area water from pollution associated with spreading manure waste on land. (Attachments 1, 2, 3) You can find more documents related to the Richfield Dairy, LLC permit application on the DNR's website.

Comments on Da Ran Dairy LLC WPDES permit - On December 6, 2016, MEA submitted comments to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on behalf of the Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network detailing the coalition's concerns with the livestock operation's prior WPDES law noncompliance, an underestimation of annual manure generation, and whether the pollution permit would resolve conditions that led to an October 25, 2016 manure spill.

DNR ordered to pay environmental justice act fees - Dane County Circuit Court Judge Markson orders DNR to pay fees and costs to petitioners on September 30, 2016 after concluding that this was such an “extraordinary” case that it warranted an order directing DNR to pay the costs of this appeal. For more information, visit our Kinnard Farms, Inc. action page.

Cranberry Creek Dairy, LLC WPDES comments - September 27, 2016 comments from MEA to DNR on the impacts of increased animal units of the expanding CAFO on impaired local waters. Concerns included insufficient acres available for land spreading manure due to landowners listed on the nutrient management plan who did not give permission for the company's use, questions about incompleteness of the WPDES application, and how the public needs more information on a potential ownership change for the operation.

Challenge to DNR approval of CAFO permit victory – In an appeal to the courts on the DNR’s decision to approve a CAFO expansion water pollution permit in Kewaunee County, on July 14, 2016 Dane County Circuit Court Judge Markson affirmed Kewaunee County Petitioners and partner organization Clean Wisconsin's argument that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' improperly rejected Administrative Law Judge Boldt’s order to include an animal unit limit and off-site groundwater monitoring in Kinnard Farms, Inc.’s water discharge permit. This decision rejected DNR’s narrow interpretation of Act 21. Judge Markson concluded that the DNR does have explicit authority to impose these permit conditions. The Court determined that state statutes do empower the DNR to require limits and monitoring of pollution in order for permittees to comply with state and federal clean water laws. For more information, visit our Kinnard Farms, Inc. action page.

Resources Related to this Issue

Assessing Groundwater Quality in Kewaunee County, WI

Assessing Groundwater Quality in Kewaunee County, WI report by principal investigators Maureen M. Muldoon, University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh and Mark Borchardt, Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment
USDA-Agricultural Research Service and USGS-Wisconsin Water Science Center with co-investigators Randy Hunt, US Geological Survey – Wisconsin Water Science Center; Laura Hubbard, US Geological Survey – Wisconsin Water Science Center; Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Department County Conservationist / Department Head; Kevin Masarik, UW-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science & UW – Extension

Kewaunee Groundwater Susceptibility Map

Kewaunee Groundwater Susceptibility Map showing areas of the county that could have groundwater contamination depending on the likelihood of contaminiant release, the type of contaminants released and the sensitivity of the area to contamination to the intensity of contamination and land use.

Kewaunee County Public Health and Groundwater Protection Ordinance

Kewaunee County Public Health and Groundwater Protection Ordinance passed unanimously by the county board on Sept. 23, 2014. Ordinance was sent to a public referendum vote in the spring of 2015, was passed and will be in effect in the spring of 2016.

Sources of Fecal Contamination in Groundwater in Rural Northeastern Wisconsin

Presentation by Mark Borchardt and Susan Spencer, USDA-Agricultural Research Service and USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, Marshfield, WI; Maureen Muldoon, UW-Oshkosh, Dept. of Geology; Laura Hubbard and Randall Hunt, USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, Middleton, WI; Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation Department; and Kevin Masarik, UW-Stevens Point, Center for Watershed Science and Education

Inactivation of Dairy Manure-Borne Pathogens by Anaerobic Digestion

Presentation by Mark Borchardt, Susan Spencer, and Spencer Borchardt of the USDA –Agricultural Research Service and USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, and Becky Larson and Asli Ozkaynak of UW-Madison Biological Systems Engineering

CAFO Toolkit: Protecting Your Community From Existing and Proposed Concentrated Animal Feeding Opera

When an industrial animal farm proposes to locate or expand in your community, know the basics of water and air regulations and your property rights. This toolkit covers how to stay informed and participate in CAFO permitting processes.

Standards and Management Practices for Animal Feeding Operations

Natural Resources Code - NR 243 - Animal Feeding Operations.

The Milking of the Public: Wisconsin’s Cost-Share Program for Farm Pollution

A 2000 publication that considers the cost-share programs imbalance towards large factory farms and what that means for pollution to Wisconsin's water supply.