By Dinesh Ramde
Magnolia — John Adams can’t see the nearly 3,000 cows on the dairy farm 2 miles from his Wisconsin home, but when the wind blows he can smell them.
The stench gives him and his wife headaches. They blame the big farm for contaminating their air and polluting the groundwater well they use for drinking, bathing and watering their garden. They no longer feel safe eating the vegetables they grow.
Adams also blames the state, which requires local governments to grant permits to large farms that meet certain limited criteria, even if there are additional environmental concerns. The rural farming town where he lives tried to impose stricter rules, only to be overruled by the state agriculture department.
Adams and seven neighbors, along with the town of Magnolia, sued the state and the farm in the first case of its kind to reach a state supreme court and the result could set a precedent throughout the Midwest. Similar cases have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma, and two juries in Missouri already have handed out multimillion-dollar awards to homeowners who complained of intolerable odors from so-called factory farms.
At the same time, several states have passed or are considering laws that would make it easier for big farms to get permits. Lawmakers say the move creates uniformity, allowing farms to expand under predictable circumstances, and strengthens one of the few industries that didn’t tank in the recession.
Critics argue the laws deprive residents of a voice.
“A township should have the right to establish guidelines to keep its people safe, but it doesn’t,” said Adams, 61. “Those of us who are being affected, it’s like there’s nothing we can do.”
The owner of the farm, Mike Larson, supports the state law. Consistency across the state makes it easier for farmers to expand and, in turn, strengthens the dairy industry in the nation’s No. 2 milk-producing state, he said.
Larson said local governments should encourage farmers rather than micromanage them. The setup on such big farms allows owners to mechanize more of the work, lowering labor costs and passing the savings on to consumers. And, since he lives a mile from the farm, he has every incentive to protect the environment and keep water sources pollution-free, he added.
“I can sleep at night because I know I’m doing things the right way, keeping the environment safe,” Larson said.
Larson Acres Inc. has been in his family for five generations. The fight started after the farm’s latest expansion, when it grew from about 1,600 cows on one site to 4,100 on two sites.
Byron Shaw, a retired University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point professor who specializes in soil and water, said the problem with such enormous farms was that they generated more manure in a small area than could be spread on the fields around them. The excess can end up washing into creeks and other water sources, he said.
That’s what concerned local officials who considered Larson’s 2006 application for an expansion permit. The town’s environmental officials reported finding high nitrate levels in a creek and local wells near the first site.
The town still granted Larson’s permit but with conditions. For example, Larson had to allow the town to conduct monthly water-quality tests on his land. The farm also had to follow certain crop-rotation strategies to reduce nitrate buildup.
Larson appealed to a review board run by the state’s agriculture department. The board agreed Magnolia had exceeded its authority by imposing additional conditions.
After several lower-court rulings, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on whether the state can prevent the town from holding the farm to a higher standard. Its decision is expected in about a month.
David Olsen, a Magnolia town board member, said there was a simpler way for Larson to resolve the matter. If the farm has nothing to hide, he said, Larson could agree to let the town test its water supplies and manure systems.
“If they’re not doing anything wrong, if they’re not polluting, we’d be their best free advertising,” Olsen said.
Larson said he opposed the idea on principle. Just as police need a search warrant before they can come on private property, he said, the town should have to prove in court that it needs access to his property.
“We have rights,” he said. “That’s the way this country works — you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Adams said it’s not a fair fight — the state law protects powerful businesses instead of residents with little clout. He worries staying in his home will hurt his health but said he couldn’t bring himself to sell to another family that would have to deal with the same risks.
“Options?” Adams sighed. “We don’t really have any.”