By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A powerful Republican lawmaker vowed Wednesday to block new state restrictions designed to protect farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure following a flurry of complaints from the Wisconsin agricultural industry.
The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has spent the last three years drafting revisions to farm-siting regulations. The latest version calls for greatly lengthening the distances that manure-storage structures have to be set back from neighbors’ property lines. The stricter rules would apply both to new farms and farms that are to be expanded.
Sen. Steve Nass, a chairman of the Legislature’s rules committee, issued a terse statement Wednesday accusing department “bureaucrats” of ignoring the industry’s concerns and making life harder for farmers. He promised to do everything he can to block the rules if they reach his committee in their present form.
“It would be a terrible mistake for (the department) to formally submit their current version of rule changes to the Legislature,” Nass said. “Instead, the department should scrap their current process and begin anew, this time seeking to work cooperatively with the widest representation of Wisconsin’s agricultural community. However, if the agency prefers the route of confrontation, then that is what they will get from the Legislature and farmers of this state.”
The department plans to bring the rules to an internal board for approval in November. From there, they would go to Gov. Tony Evers. If he approves them — which seems likely, since his administration controls the department — they would go to Nass’ committee. He could call a vote to block the rules from taking effect.
The agency issued a statement saying it has given the public many opportunities to have a say. The DNR has held a dozen public hearings and taken more than 450 comments.
“We are now considering those comments for possible revisions and will contemplate what the next step is,” the statement said. “Throughout this process, (the department) has welcomed and valued the public input it has received.”
Current state standards require farms with at least 500 animals to place their manure-storage structures at least 350 feet from neighbors’ property lines. The state doesn’t impose the standards but does require local governments must apply them if they regulate farms.
A department advisory committee concluded in April, however, that the 350-foot minimum setback doesn’t protect homes, schools and high-use areas such as playgrounds from odors.
Under the revisions, new farms with at least 500 animals as well as farms that are to be expanded to at least 500 animals would have to place manure-storage structures between 600 feet and 2,500 feet from neighbors’ property lines. The exact distance would depend on the size of the herd. Farms could reduce the setback distance by mitigating odors using anaerobic digesters, by injecting manure into the ground rather than spreading it or relying on other techniques.
Scott Laeser, water program director for environmental group Clean Wisconsin, on Wednesday called the standards “modest and long overdue.”
But a coalition of farm-advocacy groups sent DATCP a letter last week arguing that the system wouldn’t work. Farmers could be forced to place manure pits thousands of feet from a neighbor’s empty fields or woods. They also complained that farmers would have to purchase costly odor-mitigation equipment to reduce setbacks.
The groups held a joint news conference Monday to rail against the regulations, saying no farmers were included on the advisory committee, the setbacks are so extreme no one will be able to expand their operations and local governments that oppose factory farms will apply the setbacks to block new storage structures.
“If adopted unchanged, this revised rule would result in significant costs to operations that want to expand, resulting in a ‘chilling effect’ on livestock industry growth,” the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance said in a statement Monday. “Rather than grow in Wisconsin, producers will leave the state for more workable locations. Following the supply, meat and milk processors will move new investment opportunities to wherever that supply is.”