“In for a Fight": Rural Wisconsinites Resist Influx of Industrial Hog Facilities
Despite local efforts to block new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), corporate agriculture interests are legislating and intimidating their way out of accountability.
This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.
In spring 2019, Lisa Doerr learned that staff for a large-scale hog farming company were asking people in her neighborhood to sell land for a facility in Polk County, Wisconsin.
Doerr, a resident of Polk County, owns and operates a hay farm for small scale livestock.
“We produce forage [hay] for small protein producers. For small cattle and sheep,” says Doerr.
“Our county is really special,” says Doerr. The county has hundreds of small meat producers, and small family-run and owned processing centers. “So the meat that is produced, processed and sold is all small family owned operations, and that is extremely rare. It’s an intact food system.”
But the survival of that local economy is not guaranteed.
In addition to establishing operations in Polk County, a company called Cumberland LLC is currently planning to establish large breeding and slaughtering facilities in neighboring Burnett County. The pigs would be owned by Smithfield Foods, a Chinese owned company and leader in the corporate hog farming industry.
During 2019, Smithfield tripled its pork exports to China. The industry is known for centralizing the food system, offering workers poor working conditions and low wages, and polluting the communities where they operate facilities. Numerous Smithfield plants have recently become the subject of controversy for their poor working conditions during the pandemic.
“The low value of labor happens [here]… Then they actually do the more value added processing in China,” Doerr tells In These Times. “Then they’re just leaving us with the production end and the manure.”
The push by Smithfield and Cumberland LLC has sparked a backlash locally, as some residents rise up in opposition to what they see as an exploitative business venture. The County Board of Supervisors has become a focal point in community resistance to the expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the area.
“Here we are this little county, and we’re part of this global food chain essentially. And basically the proposal is we’re the toilet and they get the food,” says Polk County Supervisor Amy Middleton. “And to me it’s not what Wisconsin farming is about. We’re not about these large factory operations….It could be the tip of the spear for sure. I feel like it is.”
“I am very opposed to global agriculture policy,” adds Doerr, “not opposed to China or the people of China.”
This corporatized food production threatens a proud local agricultural economy. Large-scale hog farming, which has been linked to local water pollution and public health risks may also jeopardize local freshwater systems already under pressure from global warming and pollution.
“We’ve got creeks and wells drying up,” says Doerr.
Community members have also pointed out the risk of disease that CAFOs pose.
“Factory farms are also harbingers of large amounts of bacteria,” wrote Melanie Weberg, a Polk County resident, in an October memo to the County Board, “It has been predicted by health officials over and over that the next pandemic will be a zoonotic disease more virulent than our current Covid-19 and will be released from a factory farm.”
In response to public opposition to Cumberland LLC’s proposals, Polk County issued a temporary moratorium in October 2019 on the development of hog farming facilities. Burnett County, also facing an expanding corporate hog farming industry, set a moratorium in 2019, which remains in effect.
Polk County’s moratorium on the development of CAFOs was up for renewal in September, 2020.
In addition to the moratorium, the Polk County Board of Supervisors discussed a new ordinance, designed to regulate the industry by creating a county permit process in line with federal environmental regulations. The ordinance would still allow hog manure to be spread up to 25 feet of local lakes, and through an exemption, Doerr says, “doesn’t protect the [towns] that are targeted by the industry.”
Even this modest reform drew opposition from industry groups.
The day before the vote, Venture Dairy Cooperative, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce — three groups that represent the CAFO industry and frequently lobby the state legislature— sent the board an explosive letter, threatening supervisors with criminal felony charges if they passed the laws. (Venture Dairy’s attorney David Crass works for the law firm Michael Best Strategies that was found to have donated $15,875 to a group that promoted the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Heller Farm Inc, whose President and CEO Cody Heller is Treasurer for Venture and was Vice President of the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance in 2018, donated a further $2,000.)
“If supervisors enacted the Proposed Ordinance and Proposed Moratorium, they would be unlawful, unenforceable, and be in excess of the county board’s authority,” the letter read. The county, the authors of the letter wrote, “has been preempted by state law.” To pass the laws with the knowledge that they were unlawful would be interpreted, they argued, as “misconduct in public office”— a felony offense.
“They dropped that in our lap hours before the board meeting,” says Middleton, who is on the board.
“My first reaction was to roll my eyes at it,” says Middleton. (A similar letter had been sent to Burnett supervisors in 2019.) “But as I started talking to other supervisors, [I became] more and more concerned that night as I saw other supervisors kind of taking it to heart.” In the end, the Board passed the ordinance to regulate the industry, but voted 7 – 7 on the moratorium, with the Polk County Chairman Chris Nelson breaking the tie against extending the moratorium.
“Instead of us talking about the moratorium, and how to protect our community, and how to make sure that these large factory farms are not taking advantage of our community, [the letter] turned [the conversation] into ‘is this legal or not legal,’” says Middleton. “It had I think the intended consequence.”
After the vote, one supervisor told Wisconsin Public Radio that he had voted against the moratorium because he feared he could lose his federal pension if convicted of a felony. Another told the Wisconsin State Farmer that the “county’s hands are tied.”
The letter, formally addressed to the Polk County Board, serves as a warning to communities around the state who oppose the spread of CAFOs.
In Crawford County, where residents and local officials are mulling what they can do to push back against the implementation of similar farming operations, the letter has raised fears that the county could be sued if it delays a proposed hog facility.
Currently, state legislatures have full authority to strip local governments of any powers they wish using so-called “preemption laws.” Organizations representing large agricultural companies regularly invoke such legislation to prevent communities like Polk County from deciding how to regulate business locally.
This means counties and municipalities are limited to figuring out how to mitigate the impacts of potentially destructive projects. For instance, there’s currently a fight in Polk and Wisconsin over whether or not local governments have the power to force corporations to take out pollution bonds to pay for any future disasters they create, such as manure spills. (Costs would otherwise fall on cash-strapped local governments.)
The state has even pushed the burden of conducting scientific research onto county governments, to justify any local concerns— a tall task given the lack of funding for local governments in the state.
In Polk, the lack of legal power for local governments means the county only has a say in where CAFOs are established. “Point blank, you cannot ban a CAFO from your county,” explains Doerr. “You have to have somewhere that they can build a CAFO.”
The ordinance that Polk’s board ended up passing in September exemplifies this dynamic. The “bad ordinance,” as Doerr calls it, works within the state’s regulatory process to assert some protections like requiring public hearings and new permit conditions. If the county passed a regulatory law to add a few new requirements to the state process, Middleton explains, “at least [the community] can have a hand in it.”
Polk’s new regulatory ordinance, which governs land zoned by the county, says that only certain lands can get swine facilities. It also establishes requirements for hearings and “conditional use permits” for facilities on those lands, and restricts eligible CAFO sites to 11 out of the county’s 24 townships. Of the 11, the new regulations — which themselves do little more than affirm that CAFOs must adhere to local waste management law—would only apply to three of the townships, leaving the remaining eight not covered by the county ordinance at all.
Doerr says officials and residents in Burnett have begun to refer to unlucky townships as “sacrifice zones.”
Following the passage of the “sacrifice zones” ordinance, tensions have risen in Polk.
Mike Anderson, chairman of Johnstown, one of the three townships in Polk County currently zoned for CAFOs, and which contains Ojibwe reservation land, says the industry would be “in for a fight,” if they tried to build something in Johnstown. “Piss me off and see what happens,” said Anderson.
Doerr, whose Town of Laketown is one of the eight left unprotected by the ordinance, has worked to get her township to adopt a moratorium on large livestock facilities in 2019, and is working with others to pass their own.
Meanwhile, fed up with rabble rousers, Polk County Chairman Chris Nelson has begun to crack down on public comments at board meetings.
A week and a half after the ordinance was passed, Nelson placed Patrick Mcelhone Sr. on “a list” to be banned from ever giving public comment in the future after Mcelhone Sr. lashed out against Nelson and the board for backing off of the CAFO moratorium.
“Why have you made these oppressive resolutions? Is it because of fear of a lawsuit from a CAFO conglomerate? … Are you just going to lay down without a fight? Grow a pair,” Mcelhone Sr. said.
Rural Wisconsin is not alone. Over the past decade, the Wisconsin legislature has engaged an all-out attack on local democracy, including targeting the political power of Milwaukee and Madison.
Local governments in Wisconsin have been barred from establishing rent control, inclusionary housing, municipal broadband, and virtually any ordinance that impacts employer-employee relations. That means no local minimum wages, paid sick leave, overtime, equal pay for equal work regulations, banning of the box, fair scheduling or virtually any ordinance that protects private sector workers.
“Unless you’re infringing upon peoples’ fundamental rights, local communities should be able to govern themselves,” argues Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “These state laws are all about helping factory farms, companies, and giving a slap in the face to social movements and progressive change like a living wage and decent, or humane family leave policies. So, we view it as a democracy issue, we view it has a justice issue.”
From the residents of “sacrifice” towns in Polk and Burnett counties to low wage workers in Milwaukee, the most marginalized people bear the brunt of Wisconsin’s centralized power structure that disempowers protective local law making.
Simon is a writer, filmmaker, and works part time for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. He edits the Ear to the Ground newsletter and can be found on Twitter @SimonDavisCohen