by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County’s animal unit cap is back on the table. The rule limits the size of livestock feedlots to no more than 1,500 animal units (1,071 dairy cows, 1,500 beef cattle, or 3,750 swine), and it is the primary reason the Daley Farms of Lewiston is not allowed to expand its dairy herd despite receiving the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) approval.
Last Tuesday, rural County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward called for the board to discuss the animal unit cap, and, in accordance with the board’s by-laws, it will be on the agenda at a future meeting. A lot has changed in the world of agriculture since the cap was established in the late 1990s, Ward stated. “I think it only deserves to be reviewed,” she said. A date for that discussion has not yet been set.
Arguments over the animal unit cap abounded at last month’s Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA) meeting, when the Daley Farms sought a variance — an exception — to the rule to allow it to expand its dairy to nearly 6,000 animal units. The BOA denied the variance request. Supporters of the cap contend that larger feedlots pose a threat to the environment — they are particularly concerned that nitrates from manure applications and manure lagoons could contaminate trout streams and aquifers. Supporters also say that the cap helps limit farm consolidation, keeps more farmers on the land and in rural communities, and prevents large farms from running smaller ones out of business. Opponents argue that larger farms do not pose greater environmental risks than smaller ones, and that animal agriculture is better for the environment than row-crop farming because cows require alfalfa fields — that fix nitrogen and reduce runoff — and because manure applications are regulated by the MPCA to prevent water pollution while chemical fertilizers used on row crops are not regulated. Opponents also contend that farms must grow to survive and that the presence of large farms helps small farms in the area by supporting agribusinesses on which farms of all sizes depend.
“Rural Winona County is direly in need of expansion at the farm level. This creates jobs. It creates economic development,” Altura Mayor Bob Schell told the BOA. “Please do not hinder the industry and the asset value in Winona County by continuing to have an animal unit cap,” Altura dairy farmer Dan Kronebusch asked the BOA.
Jill Richardson told the BOA how a stream in which she caught frogs as a child in Iowa changed after large feedlots began to dominate the landscape. “We just watched that stream deteriorate to where there’s no life there anymore. I think of my grandchildren, and how life has changed for them, and I just think you need to respect the cap and leave it alone.”
Asked if supporters of the cap had a point when they raised concerns about the environmental impacts of larger farms, Jacob responded, “No. I think they’re seeing it backward. I think we can regulate the large farm much better than we can regulate the small farms.” In Minnesota, small feedlots are less stringently regulated than large ones.
Rural County Board members also resent the fact that urban commissioners have blocked changes to the animal unit cap. “The frustration that I hear from my constituents is it would make equally as much sense if the rural people had the authority to tell city people, you can only have Ma and Pa groceries; you can’t have Walmart or Hy-Vee,” Jacob stated.
Rural residents and farmers have expressed various opinions about the cap. Gilmore Valley farmer Bob Redig claimed last month that the Daleys’ expansion could put some of his neighbors out of business, and Lewiston area farmer Al Butenhoff said, “The Daley Farm expansion does pose a real environmental problem in the area.” Altura area farmer Judy Ellinghuysen supported the Daleys’ proposal, saying that their expansion would in no way negatively affect her grandchildren’s farming. The animal unit cap is arbitrary and outdated, Rollingstone resident Becky Clark said. The county needs to support all dairy because it is the economic lifeblood of rural communities, she added.
Jacob and Ward tried the same thing in 2015, when they and the county’s Planning Commission urged the County Board to create a committee to study the rule and consider increasing the cap. However, the board’s urban majority — commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Greg Olson, and Jim Pomeroy — declined, saying that the rule was just fine as it is. In subsequent elections, challengers criticized Kovecsi and Olson for, as they put it, not even being willing to talk about the animal unit cap. However, Winona and Goodview voters reelected Olson and Kovecsi.
The County Board’s upcoming discussion could be a repeat of 2015. It only takes two County Board members to put an item on a future agenda, but it takes three votes to get anything done and Jacob and Ward are in the minority.
However, County Board member Chris Meyer — who replaced Pomeroy — said she was open to talking about the cap. “In my dream, Winona County could be a leader in promoting agriculture and protecting our natural resources all at the same time, and I’d love to talk about options to do that,” she stated. She cited BOA member Larry Greden’s proposal that, as a condition of expanding, Daley Farms be required to plant cover crops on all of its fields in order to reduce runoff and capture nitrogen. “That’s an example of an innovative alternative,” Meyer said. “What other options could Winona County embrace that would move us past this stalemate over the animal unit cap and move us on to more research-based and proactive measures?”
However, Meyer said she felt that the cap does serve a purpose: to protect small farms from competition and to protect the environment. “There’s only so much room for milk contracts, and [small farmers] are concerned that they would lose their contract to sell milk if someone else is selling a bunch more … Of course, there are environmental issues that have to do with the concentration of animals and what is really going on with the quality of groundwater in the region.”
Dairy farmers compete in a global marketplace that includes truly massive dairy operations elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world, attorney for Daley Farms Matt Berger argued at last month’s BOA meeting. “The Daley Farm is not competing with their neighbors down the road,” he stated. On the contrary, the Daleys help out small farms by supporting local creameries, Jacob said when asked about Meyer’s concern about competition for milk contracts. “If you take Daley Farms out of it, then there’s that much less need for creameries in the area. I guess I don’t follow at all the argument that less [milk] production in Winona County is going to make companies more inclined to support the industry. The need to support the industry comes from there being a robust industry. So any way we can support that — we want small dairies, medium-sized dairies, large dairies. We want all the dairies we can get.”
Asked if feedlot size and environmental risk are inherently linked, Meyer responded, “That’s a great question, and I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know what the answer is. It’s the sort of question I’d want to know more about.”
Both Meyer and Olson suggested that the MPCA’s proposal for a study of nitrate pollution throughout all of Southeast Minnesota could help inform the county’s discussion of the animal unit cap.
Any change to the cap needs to include a serious study of the environmental impacts, Olson stated. The county needs to know whether raising the cap would negatively affect groundwater, he said. “How do you determine that? Well, it’s not just a compromise with industry groups. It needs to be a scientific analysis.”
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