MaryBeth Matzek: Ruling raises farmer liability concerns

This is an excerpt from a column posted at BizOpinion.

It’s been more than six weeks since the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled manure that makes its way into the water supply is considered a pollutant, but there’s still little guidance on what that may mean for the state’s farmers.

The court ruling stemmed from a 2011 case against a farm near West Bend that had 600 cows. In that case, Robert and Jane Falk were notified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that their manure spreading activities led to well contamination. The couple turned to its insurance company, Wilson Mutual, to handle the claims filed against them by neighbors who said their water supplies were damaged. Wilson Mutual cited an exclusion for damage caused by pollutants and said it was therefore not responsible. In ruling that manure found in drinking water is a pollutant, the court let Wilson Mutual off the hook for the bulk of the filed claims.

In ruling that manure can be a pollutant, the court sent shockwaves through the farming community, said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney with Clean Wisconsin, a Madison-based non-profit focused on environmental protection. She thinks the ruling will put more attention on nutrient management plans. In Wisconsin, farms with more than 1,000 animal units or roughly 700 cows are required to file nutrient management plans with the state. Those plans spell out how much and when manure can be spread on farmland.

“Farmers don’t think they are polluting. They think are just fertilizing their fields,” she said. “Most farmers follow their nutrient plans and we really view it as a best practice that all farms have a plan in place for dealing with their manure.”

Read the full column