by CHRIS ROGERS
Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) wrapped up a public comment period on the proposed expansion of the Daley Farms’ dairy feedlot, and the overwhelming majority of comments opposed the expansion or asked for more study.
Over 600 comments were filed, and around 530 of them opposed the expansion or called for the MPCA to require a more in-depth environmental study called an environmental impact statement (EIS). Around 75 comments supported the Daley’s proposal. A majority of comments were filed by Minnesotans, but some people wrote from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to express their concern about local groundwater quality and many comments were filed from distant parts of Minnesota. The majority of comments from local citizens also opposed the expansion: approximately 40 supported the expansion and around 110 opposed it.
The Daley Farms’ proposed expansion would more than double the group of farms’ dairy herd, from around 1,600 cows to nearly 4,000 cows. The potential for manure to contaminate groundwater and surface water was top of mind for many of the people who urged the MPCA to require an EIS. State rules require Daley Farms to build lined manure pits carefully designed not to leak and that the Daleys secure enough cropland to spread all 46 million gallons of manure the expansion would create annually without overloading fields with nitrogen or other nutrients. However, using talking points suggested by the Land Stewardship Project, many commenters pointed out that several municipal sewage treatment ponds — including Altura’s and Lewiston’s — collapsed in decades past because sinkholes opened up beneath them. The MPCA needs to consider whether those manure ponds would overflow in a mega-rain event such as the 2007 flood, Winona resident and Featherstone Farm owner Jack Hedin wrote. Wilson Township resident Loretta Boyer told the MPCA, “Our [well] water was tested about a year ago, and we have nitrates and traces of four pesticides present. If our water is showing signs of agricultural contamination with just normal-sized farms, how much of a risk are the Daleys potentially causing?” Winona State University Biology Professor Neal Mundahl wrote, “Groundwaters in the region already have high nitrate levels, and allowing more livestock manure to be applied to more fields may well worsen the current situation.”
Many of the people who commented in support of the Daley Farms’ expansion gave testimonials to the character of the Daley family and their reputation as responsible farmers. “The Daleys have a long history of doing what is right, and I have complete confidence that they would continue doing so moving forward with the expansion,” Lewiston Paul Doran told the MPCA. “We trust that this family will do the right thing concerning environmental issues, such as groundwater contamination … We applaud their efforts in wanting to pass along the value of good farming practices to the next generation of Daleys,” Barb Baer, of Utica, wrote.
Opponents of the expansion also focused on the economic impact allowing a “mega dairy” would have on smaller dairy producers; they argued it would hurt small farms and the rural economy in general. “Our rural communities have suffered enough from consolidation of farms; we need more people farming, not less, if we want our rural communities to be healthy and vibrant,” Wiscoy Township farmer Rachel Stoll wrote. “Minnesota needs new, young farmers, not giant ones,” rural Utica farmer James Pelowski commented.
On the other hand, Lewiston area organic dairy farmer Rory Beyer endorsed the Daleys’ proposal, writing, “I believe they will bring greater economic prosperity to the area and will allow for expanded markets for local farmers’ commodities! Plus, I would be willing to aid them in their manure disposal on our land! … Farms like the Daleys’ will be the farms of the future in dairy, and I couldn’t see a better family to expand to the size they are seeking, and I wish them well!”
The executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited also weighed in, expressing his organization’s concern that the MPCA’s EAW inadequately addresses the potential for nitrate pollution to damage trout fisheries.
Regarding commitments from landowners willing to accept manure from the proposed expansion, Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District Director Daryl Buck stressed the importance of not applying manure near sinkholes and other karst features, and advised the MPCA that verbal — not written — commitments alone may not be enough to ensure there is enough land available that would meet those setbacks.
According to MPCA staff, the agency must decide by January 2 whether to require an EIS. Public comments can influence that decision, MPCA staff stated, but it is not a mere popularity contest. In reviewing public comments, MPCA staff are trying to determine whether there is information they missed or issues they failed to study.
If the MPCA decides an EIS is not required and the Daley Farms secures the necessary state permits, the Daleys’ expansion proposal would still need a major approval from Winona County: a variance from the Winona County Board of Adjustment granting an exception to the county’s limit on feedlot size.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.