Guest Column: Don’t let the Rock River area become a dumping ground for industrial agriculture

By Tom Boswell

I was working in northeast Wisconsin in 2004 when the countryside literally began to stink from the invasion of industrial agriculture. Scott and Judy Treml, farming in rural Luxemburg, turned on their kitchen tap one morning, and out gushed something that looked like ditch water. It was a gift from a neighboring factory farm, but nothing they and their three young daughters could drink. They had to get a tanker truck for their water, and sue the factory farm, alleging 20 years of polluting a nearby creek.

“Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet,” said another victim of well contamination.

I was working for a nonprofit, helping groups of citizens compete for grants to protect their watershed and natural resources. Ironically, the grant money and my compensation came, indirectly, from the same forces conspiring to strip local communities of regulatory power in the siting of factory farms. These forces—industrial agriculture, state regulatory agencies and politicians—were busy crafting AB 868, the Livestock Facility Siting Law.

Now there are 100 of these factory farms in northeast Wisconsin and 200 in the state. They are spreading to southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois like a malignant disease. Todd Tuls, the biggest factory dairyman in Nebraska, now plans a 5,200-cow dairy east of Janesville, Wis. I have no quarrel with family farms, but these are not farms. The EPA has a special name for them: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.

Since an average cow can produce as much waste as 20 humans, the Tuls’ dairy will generate waste equal to 104,000 people. That’s 3,500 more than the combined population of Beloit, Wis., and Janesville. Rock County already faces a variety of serious health challenges including the highest level of nitrate pollution of private wells in the state. County and state agencies have recorded from 32 to 46 percent of wells exceeding the maximum contaminant level for nitrate (10 ppm).

CAFOs also impact air quality in all sorts of ways. They can produce more than 160 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and gases, most notably ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter. Children take in 20 to 50 percent more air than adults, making them more susceptible to lung disease and other health impacts. Research shows that the closer children live to factory farms, the greater their risk of asthma.

John Ikerd, a former dairy farmer and professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, has spent decades studying factory farms. He contends that CAFOs present serious risks to public health and environment. He cites contamination of air, water, soil and food with toxic chemicals, infectious diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and E. coli as among these threats. The American Public Health Association has called for a national moratorium on CAFOs.

While the Wisconsin DNR prepares to permit this factory farm, it also plans to restrict pollution in the Rock River basin. The agency noted that most of the Rock River was already “impaired,” along with sections of Turtle Creek and other local waterways. I wonder how the DNR plans to reduce phosphorus and sediment and “reach pollution goals” in the Rock basin while giving the green light to this factory farm?

Bigger is not necessarily better. What some tout as the “modern” way may actually be the way of the past. Organic foods are the fastest-growing segment of our food market and grass-based, pastured livestock is among the most profitable of farming operations. Research shows that around three-fourths of U.S. consumers favor foods grown on small family farms.

Industrial agriculture is only “profitable” because it leaves billions of dollars in “external” costs (like soil and groundwater contamination) for local communities to clean up, and because it relies on huge taxpayer subsidies.

Local control is the cornerstone of democracy. It is up to us to defend those things that make our communities attractive places to live and raise families. We must reclaim our right to clean air, clean water and good soil. Let’s not sacrifice our future to out-of-state corporations. Join Friends of Rock Prairie so our community does not become a cesspool for industrial agriculture.

Tom Boswell is a member of Friends of Rock Prairie. Contact: (608)882-0758 or

From the March 9-15, 2011, issue

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