Pinnacle Dairy

Pinnacle Dairy near Brodhead received its final state environmental permit last month. The dairy will be required to operate several monitoring wells to guard against pollutants entering the groundwater.

Horror stories of manure spills polluting groundwater have colored many people’s opinions about concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and some environmentalists are imagining the worst from a 5,000-cow dairy planned near Brodhead.

But just like we don’t associate every industrial site with an environmental disaster, we shouldn’t assume every CAFO will become a problem.

Making every CAFO out to be the “bad guy” is also a discredit to the state Department of Natural Resources, which monitors these operations and studies their plans before issuing permits.

The DNR granted a permit to Pinnacle Dairy near Brodhead last month after analyzing and responding to residents’ concerns about the dairy’s plans, particularly involving manure at the site.

Numerous conditions came with Pinnacle’s permit, and several monitoring wells will be placed near manure storage facilities to guard against pollutants entering the groundwater. In some ways, Pinnacle’s operation will be more closely scrutinized than those at surrounding farms, whose own practices over the years have elevated nitrate levels in Green County’s water.

Indeed, some public comments cite Green County’s elevated nitrate levels as justification for rejecting Pinnacle’s application, but why should the DNR deny Pinnacle for a problem that Pinnacle didn’t create?

DNR analysis of Pinnacle’s plans indicates the company is taking reasonable steps to prevent a manure spill or leak. It’s noteworthy that the company plans to create 515 days of manure storage capacity, exceeding the 180-day minimum requirement.

Project opponents portray the company’s owner, the Tuls family, as reckless stewards of the environment and cite as proof a manure spill at a Tuls farm in St. Croix County last year. The spill happened at a facility purchased by the Tuls, not one built new.

That was an unfortunate incident, though an isolated one as are most CAFO mishaps.

If Pinnacle’s opponents had their way, no CAFO would exist. Theirs is a romantic notion of agriculture, and many people sympathize with it. There is, after all, nothing aesthetically redeeming about a CAFO. Pick up any children’s book about farming, and the title is likely to say something like, “The Big Red Barn,” not the “The Big Red CAFO.” The impersonal, mechanized nature of agriculture today doesn’t make for soothing bedtime reading.

But at the same time, industrial farming is our reality, and we subscribe to it every time we load up the grocery cart.

To the extent large operations put smaller, family farms out of business, there’s little the DNR or anyone else can do. Wisconsin doesn’t have a closed economy. Milk—like most commodities—responds to global economic forces, and whether Pinnacle Dairy gets a permit won’t change current trends or agriculture practices.

It’s understandable but ultimately naive to expect government officials to protect the financial interests of family farms who are suffering amid a milk glut. Market forces will eliminate those who cannot compete, and it’s a brutal process, especially when it involves our neighbors.

Dairy is never going to return to early 20th century practices portrayed in children’s books. That said, we should demand our government leaders set standards and conditions for CAFOs—and the DNR has done this for Pinnacle Dairy. The Tuls plan to run the operation as safely and responsibly as can be expected for a modern-day, industrial farm.

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