(Image by Shutterstock)
(Image by Shutterstock)

Senate GOP pauses bill as concerns mount about impact, loss of control

In a surprise move Wednesday, Senate Republicans backed away from a bill that would have given large agriculture interests more regulatory control over large-scale farms in Wisconsin, a move applauded by Democrats and other opponents of the measure.

Rather than vote on Senate Bill 808 only 9 days after it was introduced, the Republican-controlled Senate sent it back to committee. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not offer a reason for why the vote did not occur. 

The measure is scheduled to go before the Assembly on Thursday, its final day of this year’s session. The bill could come before the Senate again next month, on that body’s final session day, sources said. Even if it is approved, Gov. Tony Evers likely will veto the bill.  

The fast-tracked bill, which has the backing of the state’s largest agriculture interests, had come under scrutiny. As proposed, large-scale agricultural producers would control oversight of big farms, a move opponents of the measure said is intended to make it harder to regulate those operations.

The bill, authored by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, would transfer responsibility for overseeing large farms — designated as those with 500 or more animals — from local town and county governments to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. And in turn, DATCP would not be able to pass new rules without approval of a new nine-member Livestock Facility Technical Review Board that would regulate large farms along with DATCP. Five of the nine board members would be chosen by large agricultural entities, a concern to bill opponents.

Putting big agriculture interests in charge of regulations to site large farms “is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Mary Dougherty, a Bayfield resident who previously worked with a coalition of groups seeking to protect Wisconsin communities from factory farms.   

Marklein and other Republican supporters of the bill said it is intended to provide a fair site review process that allows for input by agriculture organizations that comprise a large part of that sector in Wisconsin. Among the backers of the legislation are the Dairy Alliance of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the Dairy Business Association. 

Switching large farm oversight to DATCP without additional funding, and requiring site plan approval from the newly created livestock committee, would mean fewer regulations for the state’s large agriculture operations, said Kara O’Connor, government relations director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. 

During a public hearing last week before a joint session of the Assembly and Senate Agriculture Committees three days after the bill’s introduction, DATCP’s assistant deputy secretary Angela James told lawmakers that the department lacks enough staff and funding to take on the role of siting large farms.

“This action will make it harder for DATCP to make changes,” O’Connor said of the bill. “This is a way of stalling any more regulations, and that will have an adverse impact on our environment.”

Transferring oversight of factory farms from local communities to an industry-led committee “is a dangerous situation,” said Peg Sheaffer, development and communications director for Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison-based environmental law center. “It is ridiculous to think this transfer of power will do anything but degrade the quality of our environment.”

During a series of earlier DATCP hearings about possible revisions of farm-siting regulations, many state residents expressed concerns about adverse environmental impacts of large farms. Recommendations from those meetings called for significantly expanding manure setback distances from neighbors to reduce odor and health concerns. 

However, those ideas were discarded late last year after agricultural groups complained the proposed setbacks were unnecessary, and that the committee developing them did not include farmers. 

DATCP officials dropped the plan, but the proposal angered Republican senators, who voted in November against confirming the department’s secretary, Brad Pfaff, essentially firing him in an unprecedented move of political retribution against a governor’s cabinet choice. 

That action, combined with last week’s abrupt introduction of Senate Bill 808, prompted criticism. 

“To see all of those recommendations after three years of hearings just be thrown out is such a slap in the face to all of the people who took time to testify,” said Jen Riemer, who farms on 280 acres with her husband Bryce near Brodhead in southern Wisconsin. “They shutdown the entire process, ignored all those people, and then they came out with this? It’s egregious.”  

Others characterized the bill as a power grab by big agriculture interests at the expense of small farmers. 

Ramona Moody has lived for the past three decades on rural property in Burnett County in northern Wisconsin, where she and her husband raise a few farm animals each year. They live about 1,000 feet from a proposed swine CAFO that would be the largest such farm in the state, with 26,350 swine, if it is approved. 

Burnett County county government officials approved a one-year CAFO moratorium in July, but Moody worries the new large farm siting rules will make the approval of the big ag operation near her property and elsewhere across Wisconsin easier.  

“They are taking away the rights of local government and putting it in the hands of big agricultural interests,” Moody said. “This is all about big ag getting its way. But what does that mean for the little guy?”