WisBusiness: Vernon County hog hearing draws huge crowd

By Gregg Hoffmann

VIROQUA – An issue that could have statewide implications for farming and the environment drew more than 300 people to a hearing room at Western Technical College Monday night.

The hearing was on two proposed ordinances in Vernon County — one that would declare a six-month moratorium on large scale farming and the second that would establish regulations for such farm operations under a siting ordinance.

About 200 people actually made it into the hearing room to express their opinions. More than 100 remained outside the packed room, in the hallways and in the parking lot, where dozens of tractors and other farm equipment had been parked by people who oppose the moratorium and siting ordinance.

Signs ranging from “Real Environmentalists: Farmers” to “Don’t Spend Our Tax Dollars on a Lawsuit” to “No Factory Farms” could be seen both in the parking lot and in the hearing room.

What has prompted the proposed measures is a plan to build a 2,400 hog confinement on the farm owned by Jeff and Bonnie Parr near Retreat. The moratorium, proposed by the Vernon County Public Health Committee, calls for a six-month halt on any new or expanding animal facility exceeding 500 units. The siting ordinance, proposed by the county Land and Water Conservation Committee, would set regulations similar to or in excess of state regulations.

Supporters of the moratorium are concerned about runoff from manure from large scale operations, as well as odors and other environmental problems.

“What’s wrong with allowing every town or county in this state to decide land use issues rather than have a uniform state law or regulations?” said Matt Urch, a rural Viroqua resident who supports the moratorium and works with the Land Stewardship Project.

“The people of the town where this operation is proposed would have it dumped on them. In this Driftless Area, we have even more concerns because of the karst geology of the area.”

But, farmer Jim Mlsna, who helped organize the brigade of tractors and farm equipment that made the trip to the hearing site, said the moratorium could set a precedent for the state and hurt agriculture in Vernon County and beyond.

“Agriculture is the heart of Vernon County’s economy and also in many other parts of the state,” Mlsna said. “Farmers have taken care of the land for years. Many other people do not understand our industry. There already are many regulations in place that take care of the concerns in these proposed ordinances.”

The crowd included a wide variety of special interest groups — large farmers, smaller organic farmers, feed mill operators, trout fishermen, environmentalists and tourism advocates, even some Amish. In July, members of the West Fork Sportsman Club voted to make a public statement opposing large confinement operations. The Valley Stewardship Network and other environmental groups also have taken public stances for the moratorium and siting ordinance.

A straw poll, done by the Kickapoo Free Press, a new monthly publication in the area, showed that 13 of the 29 county supervisors plan to vote for the moratorium when the full board meets Aug. 7. Only one planned to vote against it, and most others were undecided, according to the poll.

The State Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCAP) sent a letter on July 17 to the county Health Committee opposing the moratorium. DATCAP argued that the moratorium would serve as a de factor regulation, which is prohibited under the state siting law.

Mike Murrary, program manager of DATCAP’s livestock siting law, told the Free Press the agency does support a siting ordinance, which does not apply stricter standards than state law. Wisconsin recently passed legislation that pre-empts local regulation of feedlots in favor of statewide rules.

The state law does allow local units of government to pass standards stricter than the state if those standards are backed by “scientific evidence.” Vernon County officials argue that the moratorium would give them time to seek more scientific study of large scale operations on the environment.