by CHRIS ROGERS
In a 2-3 vote yesterday, urban members of the Winona County Board refused to eliminate or reconsider the county’s limit on the size of livestock feedlots. Rural commissioners Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward initially proposed eliminating the feedlot cap entirely and later proposed creating a committee to evaluate the cap. However, commissioners from Winona and Goodview — Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson — blocked both proposals.
Since it was adopted in 1998, the county’s animal unit cap has restricted local feedlots from expanding beyond 1,500 animal units (1,071 cows). Supporters of the cap argue that limiting the size of livestock farms helps protect water quality and preserves smaller farms. Most Southeast Minnesota counties have no cap, and of those that do, Winona County’s cap is the lowest.
Jacob and Ward’s push to reconsider the cap followed the Winona County Board of Adjustment’s (BOA) decision last month to deny a variance request from the Daley Farm of Lewiston that would have allowed the farm to exceed the cap and expand its herd to nearly 6,000 animal units. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) approved the expansion and ruled there was no significant risk of groundwater and surface water contamination. However, many local citizens disagreed with the MPCA’s conclusions and opposed the expansion because of concerns that nitrate from manure would pollute local water.
The dairy industry has changed since 1998, and in order to survive, farms are getting bigger, Jacob stated. “Our large-dairy ban has now become, in my opinion, a medium- and large-dairy ban. Fifteen-hundred [animal units] — that’s a medium-sized dairy,” he said. People are understandably concerned about water quality, but limiting animal agriculture is not going to help because it will just be replaced by less-regulated row cropping, Jacob continued. “For us to prohibit [more] animal units in our county makes for less alfalfa, more row crops, more chemical fertilizer, more anhydrous ammonia, more urea,” he said. Dairy cows eat alfalfa, and the perennial hay crop helps reduce runoff compared to corn and soybeans. The MPCA regulates manure application, but commercial nitrogen fertilizers used on row crops, such as urea and ammonia, are not regulated. Farmers can apply as much as they want. “We need to make sure we apply [manure] properly and we don’t damage our groundwater, but sending our animals to other counties doesn’t make for better environmental conditions. It makes for different forms of nitrogen being applied to our soil. I think we’re being counterproductive if what we’re trying to do is protect our environment,” Jacob argued.
Ward argued that the county’s 1,500-animal-unit limit was an arbitrary rule not based on science. “If we’re not using science and best management practices right now in 2019, Winona County is not a progressive agriculture county,” she stated. Bigger farms are not inherently dirtier than small ones, Ward added. “You can have 10 cows and be mismanaging the manure … It all comes down to management,” she said.
“If I can’t drink this water because of pollution then I think we’ve failed everybody,” Olson said, holding up the styrofoam cup of water in front of him. “We’ve failed the dairy industry. We’ve failed our citizens.” Many shallow aquifers in rural Winona County are contaminated by nitrate pollution, and this winter, the MPCA recommended that the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EBQ) conduct an in-depth study of nitrate pollution across Southeast Minnesota called an environmental impact study (EIS). The county should wait for that EIS before considering changes to the animal unit cap, Olson argued. “We can sit here and argue to raise [the cap] or lower it or remove it, but we don’t know how it affects this glass of water, and I want to know that, and I wouldn’t support changing anything until we do,” he said. Olson added, “I’m going to again advocate for waiting until we have definitive proof that what we end up with is a good number.”
Olson is right; the county should wait for this EIS, Meyer echoed. “The concern with the groundwater is, if we contaminate it, we will be screwed,” she stated. “I come in on the side of you can’t undo something that we would later find out to be harmful,” Kovecsi agreed. “I’m concerned about our groundwater and the number of wells that are failing.”
As currently proposed, the EIS would study the sources of nitrate pollution and potential changes to state regulations that could help reduce it, but it is not specifically focused on studying whether limiting farm size improves water quality. By the end of this spring, the legislature is expected to decide whether to fund the proposed EIS and the EQB is expected to decide whether to conduct it, but the study itself might not begin until 2020 and could take years to complete.
Waiting for that study could be kicking the can down the road, Jacob said. In the meantime, Winona County is shooting itself in the foot economically if it does not reconsider the cap, he and Ward argued. What message is this giving to other farms and farm businesses? Ward asked. “People are going to think, ‘Well, unless I’ve only got 10 cows and they all have a name, I’m not coming to Winona County,’” she stated. If Winona County does not lift the cap, the Daley family may move their operation to a neighboring county or state and take their 1,728 cows with them, Jacob stated. Currently, Winona County has the second-highest number of milk cows in the state, but that would change if the Daley Farm leaves. Dairy cows are a huge part of Winona County’s economy, Jacob stated. “To me, these dairy cows are our working girls, and it’s my goal to keep them working for us, to keep them in the county,” he said.
It is not clear that raising the animal unit cap would really help the dairy industry in Winona County, Meyer stated. “Farmers do need assistance, but the animal unit cap — while I’ve heard how that might help a single farm — the biggest in the county — I haven’t heard how that helps small farms,” Meyer said. “And I have had small farmers call me and say, ‘Don’t pass this; it’ll put me out of business,’” she added. Meyer explained that the farmers she heard from were worried that creameries would not bother buying milk from their small farm if the Daleys expand.
On the other hand, Jacob said there is an opportunity for the county to attract a relocating creamery that is being displaced by development in Rochester. However, why would that creamery move to Winona County if Winona County has banned medium- and large-sized dairies? Jacob asked.
Jacob and Ward said they are frustrated that the County Board’s urban majority controls the zoning rules that apply to rural land. Imagine if rural elected officials had the power to ban big-box retailers from the city of Winona and only allow small shops, Jacob said. “If the rural community had the authority to make those decisions for the city, would that be a tough pill to swallow?” Jacob asked his fellow commissioners. “Because that’s how the rural community feels when all the rural cities and townships have weighed in saying they support this expansion.” Not every rural city and township in Winona County endorsed the Daley Farm expansion, but the majority did, including Lewiston, Utica, Altura, Elba, and Rollingstone, and the Township Officers Association, a group made up of elected officials from all of the counties’ townships.
Meyer and Kovecsi responded by highlighting the numerous rural residents and farmers who oppose raising or eliminating the cap. There are people in the country who oppose the Daley Farm expansion, but the majority support it, Jacob stated. “I don’t know if that’s true,” Meyer responded.
Kovecsi, Olson, and Meyer’s decision to reject further discussion or study of the animal unit cap puts the issue to rest for the meantime. However, if the proposed EIS does not happen, the County Board might revisit the animal unit cap. Meyer said she would be open to discussing the issue again if the EIS is not funded. At one point, Meyer told Jacob and Ward, “I’m not adverse to the suggestion that we have this conversation. I just think it’s too soon to have this conversation.”