Wisconsin towns brace for next fight on local control over large farms

A proposed pig CAFO spurred five northwest Wisconsin towns to regulate big farms — after one rescinded its ordinance, others wonder if they'll face lawsuits.

Wisconsin Watch

July 19, 2023 • Northern Region

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A building with tall double garage doors and a sign reading Town of Laketown stands next to a half-round shed with metal framing and a plastic roof and rear wall.

The Laketown Town Hall is shown in Polk County, on April 30, 2023. Laketown, population 1,024, is home to livestock, crop and specialty farms, which together comprise almost two-thirds of the landscape. The town enacted — but later rescinded — an ordinance to regulate large farms. That ordinance prompted heated debate and a since-dismissed lawsuit. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Bennett Goldstein, Wisconsin Watch

This article was first published by Wisconsin Watch.

After a developer began eyeing rural northwest Wisconsin for a large swine farm, five small towns enacted ordinances aimed at curbing environmental and health impacts.

Then, the state’s biggest business and agricultural interest groups fought back. They engaged disaffected residents. Some locals sued. Others ran for political office. New leaders in one Polk County town rescinded regulations on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Now, officials in the remaining towns with livestock regulations wonder whether they, too, are in legal crosshairs.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Wisconsin Dairy Alliance have filed a far-reaching public records request for documents from an advisory group that shaped the municipalities’ CAFO rules.

In 2019, a developer proposed an operation, known as Cumberland LLC, that would have housed up to 26,350 pigs — the region’s first swine CAFO and what would be the largest in Wisconsin. Residents later formed the advisory group, believing that state livestock laws insufficiently protect health and quality of life.

In October, two farm families, represented by WMC Litigation Center, sued one municipality in the advisory group: Laketown, population 1,024. The town’s livestock, crop and specialty farms make up almost two-thirds of the landscape.

The plaintiffs, later joined by the Farm Bureau, argued that Laketown’s ordinance diminished property values and prospects for future expansion, a government overreach that could “essentially outlaw mid-to-large sized livestock farms.”

Scott Rosenow, the Litigation Center’s executive director, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

The records request follows the dismissal of that lawsuit, but some residents wonder if the lobbying organizations are “fishing” for another case, the latest effort to prevent local governments from regulating farming in America’s Dairyland.

Pig farm proposal roils northwest Wisconsin

Cumberland’s proposal sparked heated public meetings, dozens of letters to newspapers and the formation of a nonprofit opposition organization.

The CAFO would be constructed in Trade Lake, north of Laketown in neighboring Burnett County. Sows would be bred and piglets trucked elsewhere after weaning, where they would grow until slaughter.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources rejected Cumberland’s application in March. The developer recently pitched a scaled-down project that would house 19,800 swine.

CAFO opponents in Laketown include back-to-the-landers, who view such farms as inhumane to animals. Others fear the health impacts of the millions of gallons of manure facilities generate annually, to be spread on farm fields.

A large fabric sign with the words "No Hog CAFO" and URL "" is attached to the side of an open-walled barn with wood framing and metal wire walls, standing next to a similarly constructed silo and with more farm buildings and silos in the background.

A sign opposing a proposed concentrated animal feeding operation that would house thousands of pigs is shown in the town of Trade Lake in Burnett County on April 28, 2023. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

About 90% of all nitrate groundwater pollution in Wisconsin comes from fertilizer and manure application, according to the DNR. The naturally occurring nutrient helps crops grow, but scientists associate exposure in drinking water with birth defects, thyroid disease and increased risk of developing certain cancers.

Other concerns are rooted in economics. Some Laketown farmers say CAFOs threaten smaller operations; others fear shrinking property values.

“It’s nothing more than big corporations getting together with the government and putting the screws to the little people,” said Vietnam Army veteran and recently ousted Laketown supervisor, Bruce Paulsen, who, like many opponents, speculates that the pork will be exported to China.

Laketown’s ordinance explained

The town ordinances regulate not where, but how CAFOs operate.

Laketown’s rules applied to new operations housing at least 700 “animal units,” the equivalent of 1,750 swine or 500 dairy cows, and required applicants to submit plans for preventing infectious diseases, air pollution and odor; managing waste and handling dead animals.

It also mandated traffic and property value impact studies, a surety for clean-ups and decommissioning and an annual $1-per-animal-unit permit fee — atop costs to review the application and enforce the terms of the permit.

The ordinance did not affect existing livestock facilities as long as the farms did not change owners, alter their animal species or expand beyond 1,000 animal units. But several residents believed the strict requirements amounted to a CAFO ban that would bar existing farms from growing.

Others protested government spending on the advisory group. Some said the smell of manure comes with living in a rural area.

Polk County Supervisor Brad Olson asked why farming gets blamed when excessive road salt and wastewater treatment plant overflows also taint water.

“I don’t think anybody denies that agriculture is part of the problem — or has the potential to be part of the problem in pollution,” said Olson, who grows crops and used to be a dairy farmer. “If we’re going to look at pollution, let’s look at the bigger picture.”

Brad Olson stands outside with a farm field and tree-lined hill in the background.

Polk County Supervisor Brad Olson, an opponent of local ordinances to large-scale farming, asks why farming gets blamed for pollution when excessive road salt and wastewater treatment plant overflows also taint water. He is shown in Cushing on April 29, 2023. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Clothing-optional campground owners Jen and Scott Matthiesen initially signed onto the lawsuit before attorneys requested they withdraw out of concern their business — “we’re not a nudist camp,” Jen said — would distract from the case. The couple worried that singling out farming could pave the way for special regulation of other businesses.

New Laketown Sup. Ron Peterson ran on the promise of overturning the ordinance. He believes it unlawfully superseded state laws. Those laws ban local authorities from regulating livestock more strictly than the state — unless they can prove a need to protect health or safety.

“The Wisconsin Legislature has been very clear in the statute that it’s their intent that they want uniformity in the regulation of animal agriculture,” said Peterson, a former attorney.

Gaps in DNR regulations

But supporters of Laketown’s ordinance say it merely corked regulatory leaks.

The DNR acknowledges it lacks legal authority to manage how livestock farming affects odor, noise, traffic and other issues unrelated to water quality. The agency also has struggled to keep pace with the proliferation of CAFOs, defined as farms holding at least 1,000 animal units.

The vast majority of Wisconsin’s 337 operations form the backbone of the state’s dairy industry. Just a dozen house swine.

A bale of hill sits on a harvested field, with an uninhabited wooden farm house, other farm buildings and trees in the background.

A bale of hay is shown in Burnett County, on April 28, 2023. A developer wants to build a large-scale pig farm in the nearby town of Trade Lake — a proposal that has sparked heated debate in northwest Wisconsin. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

As the DNR sees more proposals for large farms in recent years, staff shortages and turnover have fueled a backlog in permitting, delays in CAFO inspections and inconsistencies in violations enforcement, according to legislative reports.

As of June, the DNR’s permitting backlog totaled 20%, slightly less than this spring when administrators said they would need an additional 2.25 full-time-equivalent staff to handle the growing workload.

Sidestepping ‘right-to-farm’ protections

Wisconsin’s “right-to-farm” and livestock facility siting laws protect farmers from nuisance claims and generally rebuff local control over CAFOs.

Regulating livestock operations, but not banning them or restricting their locations, could enable communities to sidestep the laws — with major implications for the state’s $104.8 billion agricultural industry.

The strategy, successfully deployed in 2016 in Bayfield County, appears to be spreading. Facing the prospective expansion of a dairy CAFO in Pierce County, about 60 miles south of Laketown, residents are urging county supervisors to enact a CAFO moratorium until they can develop an ordinance.

“The problem is, we’re a disease for them,” said Trade Lake resident Rick Painter, a retired attorney who opposes Cumberland’s construction. “We’re a cancer, and they can’t afford for the cancer to metastasize.”

When confronted with legal threats, Laketown was among the few Wisconsin local governments to stand its ground, perhaps due to the deep expertise of its full- and part-time residents.

Trade Lake property owner and trial lawyer Andy Marshall and his brother David agreed to represent the town at no cost. If the other towns requested assistance, Andy Marshall said he would offer his services. Without money for a good legal defense, he said, small towns can get “steamrolled” by wealthy interest groups.

Andy Marshall stands outside with trees in the background under an overcast sky.

Trial lawyer Andy Marshall is photographed on his property in the Town of Trade Lake in Burnett County, on April 30, 2023. He and his brother agreed to represent neighboring Laketown pro bono in a lawsuit that targeted its regulations of large-scale farms. New leadership ultimately rescinded the ordinance, prompting the lawsuit’s dismissal. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

“It shouldn’t be the community that suffers because these companies can’t safely operate,” Marshall said.

Farmers want expansion options

Farmer Sara Byl views the anti-CAFO chorus with increasing skepticism.

Her family owns Northernview Farm, growing about 600 acres of corn and alfalfa to feed their herd of Holsteins in Laketown. Before Sara and her parents sued over Laketown’s ordinance, she served on the town’s livestock facility licensing committee, which studied whether it needed CAFO regulations.

A sign with an illustration of a Holstein cows and the words "Northernview Farm," Registered Holsteins" and the names of the proprietors stands next to a barbed wire fence, with a farm field, a feed pile topped with agricultural plastic sheets and tires, and line of trees in the background.

A sign for Northernview Farm is photographed in Laketown, on April 28, 2023. The Byl family, which owns the Polk County farm, grows about 600 acres of corn and alfalfa to feed their herd of Holsteins. They oppose local ordinances to regulate large-scale farming, saying such efforts could impede the future growth of smaller farms like theirs. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Byl felt the effort evolved into a push against all large-scale farming rather than one hog CAFO.

“It was all about the hog farm — hog farm this, hog farm that,” she said. “Then they left off the word ‘hog’ and they just kept saying ‘farm.'”

The Byl family, three generations of farmers, doesn’t operate a CAFO, but Sara says the farm might grow if her son, nieces or nephews pursue agriculture careers.

Michael, Joyce, Sara and Noah Byl in a cattle barn with multiple Holstein cows standing at a rail and eating feed.

The Byl family, which has operated Northernview Farm in Laketown, includes, from left, Michael, Joyce (who is since deceased), Sara Byl and Sara’s son, Noah. (
Credit: Courtesy of Sara Byl)

Farmers expand for multiple reasons, said Michael Langemeier, a professor in the agricultural economics department at Purdue University.

Farm expansion and consolidation help lower production costs, increase efficiency and satisfy demands for safe, low-cost and uniform agricultural products. Larger farms also can financially support multiple owners and obtain favorable prices on supplies.

But CAFO opponents argue the consumer gains are offset by the federal policies that support large livestock farms, including taxpayer funded subsidies, and other costs resulting from their health and environmental impacts.

Bracing for next lawsuit

Although newly elected Laketown officials rescinded the rules in April, the CAFO regulations of four other towns remain intact.

That same month, the Dairy Alliance submitted public records requests to all towns in the advisory group for communications from current or former town supervisors about the group’s work. The Farm Bureau also requested records from all advisory group members related to its work, as well as its expenses.

Asked for comment, Cindy Leitner, the Dairy Alliance’s president, ceased correspondence with Wisconsin Watch after being provided with questions. H. Dale Peterson, general counsel to the Farm Bureau, did not respond to interview requests.

“I see it as a great opportunity to show the Farm Bureau all the great work we’ve done,” quipped Lisa Doerr, the advisory group’s chairperson.

Lisa Doerr stands outside in front of a small body of water, with wetlands in the foreground and a tree-lined shore in the background under an overcast sky.

Lisa Doerr is a former horse breeder who grows forage on her 80-acre property in the Polk County town of Laketown. She chaired an advisory group that shaped ordinances to regulate large farms in several northwest Wisconsin municipalities. One town later rescinded its ordinance. She is shown on her property on April 29, 2023. (Credit: Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Doerr, who grows forage on her 80-acre Laketown farm, contends the group was not a governmental body and lacked decision-making powers, so its members aren’t subject to Wisconsin’s public records law. She denied Peterson’s request.

“If they want to push me, then bring it on,” Doerr said.

Bone Lake town Chairman Andy Brown already fulfilled the records requests.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” he said. “If they want to see my emails back and forth about how to make this happen, then fine.”

With a defense team at the ready, Brown says he isn’t worried. “This is an important test case, and somebody’s gonna have to be in front of that firing squad some time or another,” he said. “And so if it’s us, it’s us.”

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network.

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