Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.
Dairy Protesters Need to Be Careful What They Wish For
Sep 29, 2010
As Air Force One came gliding in on its landing path to Madison, Wis. yesterday afternoon, a small group of anti-CAFO protesters rallied at the gates of World Dairy Expo.
The protesters, who oppose large confined feeding operations (CAFOs) and the Wisconsin siting law, were clearly upstaged by President Obama who came to Madison to give a speech at the University of Wisconsin. Local media clearly opted to cover Obama, the first sitting president to visit Madison since Harry Truman came in 1950.
The protesting groups represented Family Farm Defenders, Stop Factory Farms and the Crawford Stewardship Project. Their foremost concern is the Wisconsin Siting Law, which sets state-wide standards that expanding livestock operations must meet. Once they do, they are permitted to build and operate the facilities. The only exception is if local governments can prove, through science-based findings, that tougher requirements are needed to mitigate land use and pollution concerns.
“Economic development and land use planning are impossible to negotiate under the present [siting] law,” counters Edie Ehlert, Crawford Stewardship Project Coordinator and one of the protesters. “We want to promote a diverse rural economy, to include sustainable farms of a size the land can support, local businesses and low impact rural tourism…. We cannot accomplish these goals with the [siting] law. CAFOs are incompatible with other forms of rural economic development.”
Most commercial dairy operators, of course, would beg to differ. Every cow added to a local tax base adds thousands of dollars, multiplied several fold as it makes its way through local and regional economies.
What the siting law does is level the playing field for producers who want to grow to a size that is economically competitive, not only state wide, but nationally and now globally. Without the ability to grow, local dairy industries stagnate and eventually die.
That was happening in Wisconsin and much of the Midwest in the 1980s and 90s. But as dairy producers here learned how to manage cows in freestalls and parlors, and figured out they could compete and even out-compete Western dairies on a cost basis, the industry has regained momentum. Since 2001, Wisconsin has rebuilt market share. Most of that has come through more milk per cow as state producers tapped into technologies such as TMRs, BST and timed A.I. programs.
Only recently have Wisconsin cow numbers begun to rebuild. They are still not at the levels of 2001, but each monthly milk production report shows gains over year-earlier levels. Most of these gains have come from dairy expansions, with herds growing from 100 cows to 350 and on up. And yes, CAFOs have played a large, and I dare say, an important role in that increase.
Without these increases, Wisconsin’s famed cheese industry would not have been able to grow. And grow it has. Unlike Western cheese expansion, which has generally opted to build mega-plants that require 3 to 6 million lb. daily intakes, most of the Wisconsin expansion has come in hundred thousand pound increments. Rather than mass produce mozzarella and cheddar, these Badger State expansions are in specialty cheeses. The result was a two-fold, win-win: An expansion of markets for Wisconsin milk and a local, lower cost alternative to imported specialty cheese from Europe.
Yesterday’s protesters complain that their opposing viewpoints are not being heard by state government officials. But in just about every case, when protests are heard by independent review boards or by Wisconsin courts, the cases are found in favor of the sited livestock facilities. If the protesters ever were to prevail, they would shut down commercial dairy operations and along with them, the very infrastructure that provides a market for all sized dairy farms.