Along Decatur Sylvester Road west of Brodhead, a small yellow sign on the front lawn of a rural home declares opposition to industrial farms coming to Green County.
Looming on the horizon is the booming project site of Pinnacle Dairy, a farm that would milk 5,000 cows on nearly 130 acres and is the operation the little yellow sign purports to stop.
Pinnacle would be the latest foray into the south central Wisconsin market for the Tuls family. The family operates Rock Prairie Dairy east of Janesville in addition to a large farm in northwestern Wisconsin and others in Nebraska.
Construction crews have built a handful of partially complete farm facilities on the property. But Pinnacle still has not met a specific environmental condition it needs to secure a final permit.
Milk prices are low and the industry is flooded with an oversupply of milk. Some have questioned the logic of adding 5,000 cows to the market at this time, fearing the move could force smaller, already-struggling dairies out of business.
“We’re seeing family farms absolutely pushed off the land. That’s what drives rural communities,” said nearby farmer Jen Riemer. “If we drive out family farms in rural communities, we’re going to have nothing but shuttered-down towns in the countryside. It’s already happening.”
Riemer’s family leads a small beef, pork and chicken operation about a half-mile from the Pinnacle site. She helped start Green County Defending Our Farmland, the opposition group responsible for the yellow roadside signs.
She has many concerns with the project, chief among them the possibility of a manure spill tainting the area groundwater.
Riemer shares those concerns with Green County officials, who have not approved Pinnacle’s plans for manure storage and disposal. That’s what has caused the project to come to a temporary halt.
Green County Conservationist Todd Jenson said Pinnacle needs to meet three conditions related to water quality before the farm receives its livestock siting permit. Pinnacle has fulfilled two of the requirements but not the third, Jenson said.
The missing link is maintaining enough distance between the bottom of manure pits and the top level of groundwater, he said.
Todd Tuls, Pinnacle’s co-owner, insists his project is safe. He believes the site will meet the separation requirement within four to eight weeks, once trapped water is pumped out of the ground, he said.
Tuls said the water is isolated, packed between layers of soil with nowhere to drain. But Jenson is “questioning” that notion and believes it might be part of the groundwater.
If the water is trapped, Pinnacle is legally allowed to install a draining system to remove it. If it’s part of the groundwater, it would increase the separation distance requirement, Jenson said.
Tuls said the disagreement over the site’s hydrology is an effort to prevent Pinnacle from being completed. Environmental concerns from opponents are overblown, he said.
“The last thing I want is for us to pollute the water table or regional water or any type of pollution in the environment. There’s just differences of opinion,” Tuls said. “It’d be a very poor choice to invest the kind of money and do what we’re doing to have in two or three or five years to pollute the environment.
“I don’t quite understand the logic behind some of these people.”
Some of the concern about Pinnacle comes after a manure spill at Tuls-owned Emerald Sky Dairy in St. Croix County near Eau Claire. Farm operators did not report the spill until well after it occurred.
Tuls’ son T.J. previously told The Gazette the spill was not immediately reported because, buried underneath snow, nobody noticed when it happened.
Todd Tuls said the spill never left the property and that the family has upgraded Emerald Sky’s facilities to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Jenson said the Emerald Sky spill would not factor into his permit decision for Pinnacle.
Some opponents have brought up problems in Kewaunee County. There, manure runoff contaminated the groundwater supply and led to stricter regulations in response.
Jenson said it wasn’t fair to attach Kewaunee County concerns to Green County. Kewaunee has far more animals per farmland acre and more porous bedrock, he said.
Even if Pinnacle adheres to all environmental regulations, Riemer and other opponents fear the gigantic dairy could force out smaller farms.
The Riemers don’t milk cows, but they have friends with dairy farms who struggle to make ends meet, she said. Pinnacle, with its vast resources, can outlast others in a tight economic landscape.
Tressie Kamp, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the dozens of nearby farms that have spent decades on their lands shouldn’t be forced to suddenly change their operations or take major financial risks.
But such moves would likely be necessary to keep up with Pinnacle.
“Because a business model of a smaller farm may be different than a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) … does not mean the business model is wrong or not sustainable long term,” Kamp said. “Why should it be the smaller farms who have to adjust the business model if a large farm comes into the community in order for the small farm to survive?”
Adding thousands of cows also seems like an unusual move to some opponents when the dairy market is awash with milk products.
Tuls dismissed that concern, saying the family wouldn’t build such a large business without already having agreements in place with regional dairy processors.
“We’re not going into markets that are overflowing in milk without talking to the people who are going to buy our milk,” he said. “That’s another silly thing. Why would we build a dairy in a spot we didn’t already have previous conversations with a co-op or plant for needing the product?
“It’s like building gas station where there’s no cars. That’s illogical.”
For Tuls, it made sense to enter the market now when prices are low. The diminished financial return of dairy farming would cause some farmers to leave the industry.
That would eventually lead to a drop in supply and increase demand for milk products, he said.
Mark Stephenson, the director of dairy policy analysis at UW-Madison, said while 5,000 additional cows seems like a massive increase, it’s a “drop in the bucket” compared to the overall dairy industry.
Stephenson didn’t think Pinnacle would directly force any existing farms out of business, but it would create unnecessary pressure at a time when some milk processors are “bursting at the seams,” he said.
Pinnacle has accumulated plenty of opponents throughout its lengthy push to secure final project approval.
It was involved in a since-dismissed lawsuit with the town of Sylvester over the town’s ordinances.
The South Central chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which represents Green County, has expressed the same environmental and industrial concerns as others. The group has lobbied for a slower approach to permitting, said current board member and former president Kriss Marion.
Midwest Environmental Advocates has not taken any legal action but has followed the process closely, Kamp said.
Riemer declined to comment whether Green County Defending Our Farmland would pursue a lawsuit. Even if the group is unable to stop this project, it could lead to future advocacy for stronger state-level regulations, she said.
Tuls cited more than 6,000 acres’ worth of local land lease agreements for manure spreading as evidence of having area support.
He said he would be happy to meet with opponents and hear their concerns, but Riemer said communication has been sporadic.
Pinnacle doesn’t want to put any surrounding farmers out of business. But Tuls, a leader of a multi-state dairy operation with tens of thousands of cows, challenged them to keep pace.
“A farmer can be competitive in any size or fashion if they’re really good at what they do,” he said. “A small farm should be able to easily compete with a bigger farm.”