(Photo by Shutterstock)
(Photo by Shutterstock)

New board would reduce public input to factory farm location rules

A coalition of big agriculture interests and representatives from the towns and counties associations pushed lawmakers Thursday to pass a bill in the waning days of the legislative session that would transfer control of large farm siting from the local to state level.

The bill, Senate Bill 808, would take the responsibility away from local towns and counties when siting larger farms, defined as a farm with at least 500 animal units, and transfer it to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. 

A public hearing was held Thursday before a joint session of the Assembly and Senate Agriculture Committees, three days after the bill’s introduction.

The bill, authored by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, has the support of the Wisconsin Towns and Counties associations. 

The state’s largest agriculture-related groups, including the Dairy Alliance of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants, also support the bill.

Perhaps more importantly, the bill would create a new nine-member Livestock Facility Technical Review Board with DATCP, with five of the board’s nine members chosen by the agriculture industry. 

The board would be tasked with voting on new rules, such as new siting law, moving forward. Nothing would become law unless it had approval of two-thirds of the board members. 

Some Democrats questioned if an industry-heavy board should essentially be regulating itself.

“I have some concerns with this new board,” said Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo. “It seems very heavily weighted with farmers and there are other groups who are impacted and plenty of people who live next to farmers. When five of a nine-member board are from the ag industry … I question that.”

Marklein responded to the criticism by saying agriculture groups want to make sure their input is being heard and considered.

“The bill is fair and balanced,” he said.

The move follows outrage in the agriculture community last year after DATCP spent three years drafting revisions to the farm siting regulations.

The regulations called for dramatically expanding manure storage facility setback distances from neighbors’ property lines for new farms and farms looking to expand, largely to reduce odor and health-related complaints associated with the stench of manure. 

The three-year effort went nowhere after Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, co-chair of the Legislature’s Rules committee, released a statement accusing department “bureaucrats” of ignoring the industry’s concerns and making life harder for farms, according to The Associated Press. Nass promised to do everything he could to block the rules if they reached his committee. 

Now, with the Assembly and Senate scheduled to only be on the floor for two more days of votes this session, this bill is being brought before the Legislature.

Considine acknowledged there has been much focus this legislative session on the plight of farmers, following Gov. Tony Evers’ call for a special session to address the decline in small farmers at his State of the State address in January.

Currently, the state has approximately 316 large farms, known as CAFO’s, or confined animal feeding operations, and an additional 8,000 smaller farms, according to legislative staff at the public hearing. 

“Are we seriously here to help the 316 CAFO’s in the state?” Considine asked.

Tranel said he questions if those who oppose the bill understand how agriculture operates in Wisconsin or if they want to see agriculture succeed in Wisconsin. 

“The reality we need to understand is, farming is complex,” he said. “Farms have to consolidate, not because they want to, but because they have to in order to compete. I’m not saying I like it, but that is the reality.”

Angela James, DATCP’s assistant deputy secretary, said the department does not have the staff or the funding to take on the role of siting large farms. DATCP staff that does work with farmers currently do so in a collaborative role, she said. 

“We have concerns over turning these staff into decision makers,” James said. “I don’t know yet how this would work. It is one of the questions we have about this bill.”