Kewaunee County Has Right To Be Angry Over Paltry DOJ Settlement Of Corporate Farm Improperly Spreading Manure

Jars of water from Kewaunee County home tap where researchers tied manure from nearby farm fields to the polluted water. Courtesy of Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation Department

The news on the surface seems to suggest the State of Wisconsin prevailed with justice by taking a firm stand on behalf of the residents who were negatively impacted in Kewaunee County, where cattle outnumber people nearly 5 to 1. In 2017 up to 60 percent of sampled wells in a Kewaunee County study contained fecal microbes, many of which are capable of making people and calves sick. So it might seem needless to say for those who have endured polluted and colored drinking water for many years, the meager $215,000 settlement of ‘pollution allegations’ by Kinnard Farms rings harsh and hollow. While one can rightly approve of the determination shown by the Department of Justice to challenge the wrongdoing of this corporate farm the final financial outcome is a sad joke.

The Legislature’s finance committee is scheduled to approve the deal this week, and the press is reporting this small fine will settle allegations that Kinnard Farms improperly spread manure in Kewaunee and Door counties between 2018 and 2022.  The settlement also calls for Kinnard Farms to upgrade two waste storage facilities and a feed storage area.

If you have not heard of Kinnard Farms it is not due to their name being absent on the lips of Kewaunee residents. For years one of Wisconsin’s largest dairy operations in the northeastern region of the state, with 16 industrial farms, has created agricultural pollution where testing has proven outrageous levels of contaminants in residents’ private drinking water wells. Contaminants that match fecal matter in farm fields with tap water pollution. How many ways can one say yuck?

In 2021, the state allowed a permit to Kinnard Farms that required the business to monitor at least two sites where it applies manure to the land as fertilizer, with at least three wells per site. The sites selected must have a shallow depth to the bedrock, where the groundwater resides. The business, of course, and as one might imagine contends the testing regime is too expensive.  As such, they are suing the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There is enough money to hire a law firm in Madison but not enough to test and keep local residents safe from contaminants in the drinking water.

We all take for granted the clarity of our tap water and the safety of drinking it, brushing our teeth, and using it for cooking and showering.  But our fellow citizens in Kewaunee County when turning on the tap are aware that pollution issues are front and center due to manure having been applied during spring, summer, and fall on area land.  As their local students are taught in science classes, their topsoil is a relatively short distance from the groundwater in the area, due to its unique hydrogeology. This is the basic understanding as to why many taxpayers can show bottles of dirty water taken from the kitchen tap.  Who can blame that county for raising holy heck about what has been done all in the name of a corporate farm making huge sums of money?

I noted a WPR news story during the Covid pandemic when most people were taking steps to stay clear of the virus, where it was reported hundreds of people in Kewaunee County were falling ill at home just from their drinking water.

The study predicts cow manure causes 230 cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the county per year, out of 301 total cases of sickness — with an additional 12 cases caused by human waste from septic systems. The contaminant is unknown for the other instances, the authors wrote.

The reason I am animated over this issue is that research is showing that even what was considered a solution to the harm done by Kinnard Farms may not be enough for the safety needs of the citizenry.

Private homeowners in that situation may be eligible for a well compensation program that provides money for filling and sealing old wells, drilling and constructing a new well or installing a treatment system. If they have E. coli in their well, Peninsula Pride Farms Water Well program also offers help.

But Borchardt’s research shows a new or deeper well does not necessarily provide protection.

Tenacity and resolve are traits from the Justice Department that I always find welcoming, but there is no glee to be found with this weak and anemic $215,000 settlement for a corporate farm that has done so much environmental harm. No real justice can be summed up with a $215,000 settlement. Severe lax state regulations regarding agricultural practices allowed people to bring dirty bottled water to the statehouse and place it on my desk and ask for a resolution in the 1990s. They had a right to be angry then. They have even more reason for anger now.

High Capacity Wells And Farming In Hancock, Wisconsin

I rarely think about The Agriculturalist, a publication aimed at the farming community.  Other than a relative recently talking about how Grandpa Schwarz read it, which brought back memories of seeing it in their rural farmhouse, I had not thought about it for decades.  But this week someone who knows about my interest in groundwater issues in the Hancock area, the place I grew up, made me aware of a story about farming and irrigation in that long-forgotten source for farming information.  

The story centered on Jim Bacon who farms 6,050 owned and rented acres with his family near Hancock in central Wisconsin.  There is no need to remind readers why farmers are an essential sector of our economy. I have long championed farmers for the part they serve with international relations as their products are very much a part of diplomatic underpinnings with other nations through, as an example, massive grain and beef sales. But farmers also have a deep responsibility for the land and the groundwater which allows them success and profits.

Farmers in the Central Sands rely heavily on irrigation to grow crops on very sandy soils. One hundred percent of the land the Bacons farm is irrigated with 60 center pivots.

Bacon is grateful for irrigation, adding, “We need the water to farm, and we need to manage it properly for future generations.”

I was truly pleased that Bacon added that managing water for future generations is important. Because it is!  I would have liked to know more about his thinking and what practices he undertakes to meet his desires for the future. That would have seemed a logical progression of the news story. But the reporter/writer for The Agriculturalist did not seem to inquire of Bacon what that type of managing entails or write one line about the negative impact of high-capacity wells. 

There is another side to this story from Fran O’Leary, of course, and it deals with the overuse of irrigation for the profits of large farming businesses.

In the area where I grew up the conversation about high-capacity irrigation wells has taken on a louder and more robust tone over the past decade.  It is pitting farmers against those who wish for more considerate and wise use of natural resources.  The numbers speak for themselves when looking at the menacing side of these wells.  In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, while today there are more than 3,000.  That is 40% of the state’s total — in just a six-county area!

In 2021, I was very pleased with the truly tremendous victory from the Wisconsin State Supreme Court for science, the environment, and the authority of experts in state agencies to craft rules (that was not a small victory, mind you) that work for all residents when they strongly affirmed the Department of Natural Resources has the authority to place permit restrictions on high-capacity wells in order to protect the state’s water.  The Court had also ruled that same day about having the power to regulate through rulemaking huge livestock enterprises which pollute groundwater. 

The majority Court decision, written by Justice Jill Karofsky, found the DNR “had the explicit authority” to impose both permit conditions in order to “assure compliance” with limitations on discharged waste and groundwater protection standards. Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote in the court’s majority opinion that the state Legislature “has granted the DNR the broad but explicit authority to consider the environmental effects of a proposed high capacity well.”

My concern about water issues has been a decades-long journey.  I still recall the woman, in the 1990s, holding the jar of cloudy and unappealing-looking water taken from her kitchen tap in Kewaunee County prior to driving to the Madison office of her state assemblyman. What she made clear to Representative Lary Swoboda was the harmful impact the water would have on her children.  She offered to leave it on my desk so I would not forget her plight.

I fondly recall biking again and again to a local lake in Hancock as a teenager, and though not knowing how to swim, loving to wade about and cool off. As an adult, it became clear that the groundwater concerns from locals were not just irrational fears but were coming from first-hand accounts of new homeowners needing to go deeper and deeper when digging a well. My dad, Royce Humphrey, had a second well, located near our garden plot near County KK, go dry when I was a young adult.

While the past two years have allowed for Hancock lakes to be very full, that does not diminish the long-term data about the groundwater and the impact of high-capacity wells in the area. The need to better regulate the permits is a necessity, given that such wells can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water a day from the ground.

Dad and Lary had passed away by the time the Court ruled, but I knew how pleased they would be with the rulings. Dad served 40 years as a Hancock Town Supervisor, trying to press in his low-key style the need to be mindful of natural resources. Lary, who served for 24 years in the Assembly, had wished for a more forceful ability to constrain farm runoffs into local streams. What they both understood and knew very well to be true was that wise and judicious use of the groundwater is something that requires continued vigilance.

I am glad that Bacon alluded to that idea in his statement to The Agriculturalist and only wish the reporter would have written an article that was aimed to allow for a better understanding of the issues surrounding irrigation.

Wisconsin’s Fall Farm Markets Make For Smiles

The annual road trip to Arena in Iowa County never fails to make me happy. Waiting for just the right day with perfect fall temperatures and knowing all the squash and apples and other items will be stocked puts me in a perfect mood.

Wisconsin is perhaps at its best when one can drive into the country where mile after mile of leaves is starting to turn color. That color palette is matched with the piles of brightly colored pumpkins and corn shocks near the roadsides for sale.

On Saturday we took to the back roads and made our way to the place that has been a fall destination for about two decades. It never grows old to see a youngster trying to lift or drag a pumpkin that is far too big for their arms. Dad comes along to lift up just the perfect one selected by the kid.

Then there is the need to bite into one of the freshly baked apple cinnamon donuts, and this weekend with the tailgate of the pickup pulled down kids were doing just that as we arrived in the parking lot. Before we left it was essential to follow suit!

Carts were piled high with all sorts of gourds and squash waiting for the cashier to recall the various prices for the items, all the while joshing with the customers about that afternoon’s collegiate football games.

For all the rancor that was to be found wherever one turned the rest of the week, only smiles and gentle banter among complete strangers took place at that large farmer’s market. I mentioned to a young boy pushing his baby sister around in what looked to me to be a cumbersome carriage that next year she will be walking about on her own. He smiled and said, “it ain’t so bad once you get this thing moving”. Just perfectly said without missing a beat.

There is a slower pace to the country that, even in small doses, does make for an impact. James and I came home and removed all the items from the convertible and were amazed once on the picnic table that it all somehow had fit.

Lots of hard work from our farming sector of the state often does not get the full recognition from those who live in urban environs. Even if for only a few hours it would do everyone good to drive out into the country and stop along the way to talk and shop with the ones who make our kitchens so full of flavor and diversity.

Wisconsin Farm Woes Due To Donald Trump, Suffering Farmers Waiting For Chance At Ballot Box

The New Yorker has a must-read for Wisconsinites interested in understanding parts of the state they may not live in, or politicos who desire a better understanding of the electorate as we ahead to Election Day.  Since the article is quite remarkable for writing and information, and since I suspect a paywall might limit readers, I post portions of the longer read.

In 2016, after voting for Barack Obama twice, (Jerry) Volenec voted for Trump. Volenec had grown disenchanted with Obama after his Administration banned whole milk from schools and did little to slow the loss of family farms. “I wasn’t following politics closely,” he said. “I never listened to Trump give a speech, just commentary over the radio. I had the general impression that what’s wrong with the agricultural economy was that too many politicians were involved, and that having a businessman in the White House would benefit me.”

As rural Wisconsin’s fortunes have declined, its political importance has grown. Trump won the state by less than twenty-three thousand votes. If the 2020 election is close, Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania—the other Rust Belt states he flipped in 2016—and still win a second term by holding Wisconsin. Trump underperformed in the suburban counties of Milwaukee, the Republican Party’s stronghold, while overperforming in the state’s rural areas, where he won nearly two-thirds of the vote. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the largest shift in voting between Obama’s seven-point victory in Wisconsin, in 2012, and Trump’s one-point win came in communities that cast fewer than a thousand votes. (Nationally, Trump won sixty-two per cent of the rural vote.)

Four years ago, Trump promised to reverse the economic decline of family farmers. “Hillary Clinton wants to shut down family farms just like she wants to shut down the mines and the steelworkers,” he said, during a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. “We are going to end this war on the American farmer.” In early 2018, he launched a series of trade wars, which provoked China, Mexico, Canada, and the European Union into imposing penalties on American dairy products. Mexico, the largest importer of Wisconsin cheese, levied a twenty-five-per-cent tariff on American cheeses. Last summer, Trump allotted fifteen billion dollars in compensation to farmers, but the vast majority of it has gone to the largest farms. In a tweet, he called farmers “great patriots” and promised that they would eventually be better off.

In June, as Trump’s poll numbers dropped nationwide, the Washington Post reported that his campaign advisers were losing hope for Michigan and Pennsylvania, and would focus on holding Wisconsin. “It’s baked into the cake that Trump will lose the state’s large metro areas in a landslide, while the suburbs have been fleeing him,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me. “Trump can’t win a second term unless he racks up enormous margins in rural Wisconsin.”

For Volenec, Trump’s appeal vanished almost immediately. “If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him,” he said, when I visited him at his farm in February. As Trump’s trade wars escalated, Volenec’s problems worsened. In March, 2018, Canada effectively cut off all dairy imports from the United States, and milk from Michigan that had previously been exported began flooding into Wisconsin’s processing plants. The co-op where Volenec sent his milk for processing was now competing with cheap out-of-state milk, and put a cap on the amount that it would take from him. That week, Volenec heard about a meeting of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group, in nearby Dodgeville, to promote a version of supply management, a system used in Canada that sets a quota on the production of dairy, eggs, and poultry. Designed, like the New Deal policies, to prevent overproduction and to guarantee farmers a stable income, the system relies on higher prices for Canadian consumers. Trump’s trade war with Canada is aimed at dismantling supply management, which has long been deplored by Republican politicians. John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, called it “Soviet-style” agriculture. For Volenec, it was a revelation. “This was my first glimpse into a world where the dairy farmer is not subservient to The Market,” he wrote in an essay called “Groomed for Apocalypse.”


Dairy farmers have felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic acutely. As schools and restaurants closed, they abruptly cancelled their contracts with milk bottlers and cheese factories. The price of milk dropped by more than thirty per cent, and some processors began asking their farmers to dump milk. By late April, as hungry people lined up at food banks, one farm had already dumped more than five million pounds of milk, according to “The Mid-West Farm Report.” Mitch Breunig, a dairy farmer in Sauk City, had to dump all of his morning milking for ten days. “We took a hundred-and-fifty-foot hose and ran it from the milking parlor right into the manure-storage unit in the barn,” he told me. Breunig wound up dumping eighty thousand pounds of milk, for which he received no money. “I would just look at it and think, Wow, everything we did was for nothing.”

State agencies issued protocols for dumping milk, which can pollute groundwater and decimate fish populations. Though Volenec has not had to dump any of his milk, he’s been worrying about the environmental costs of large-scale dairy farming, from water contamination to climate change. Manure runoff from industrial dairy farming has contributed to a dramatic increase in bacteria and nitrates in the state’s groundwater, according to a study funded in part by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. (A farm with twenty-five hundred cows produces as much waste as a city of four hundred thousand people.) The E.P.A. recently sampled the groundwater in a thirty-mile area of Juneau County that’s dense with dairy cows and found that sixty-five per cent of the sites had elevated levels of nitrates, which have been linked to birth defects, colon cancer, and “blue-baby syndrome,” a condition that reduces oxygen in an infant’s blood and can be fatal.

“You’re now looking at three or four generations of depletion,” Curt Meine, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me. “Depletion of rural communities, rural landscapes, rural soils and water, depletion of the land and local economies. And you have the brain drain that followed it. This is why we have this deep urban-rural divide. We have concentrated and exported the wealth. Everyone sees it, but neither party has wrestled with it. One party exploited it, the other party has ignored it.”


On my way to pay a final visit to Jerry Volenec’s farm, I drove through the Driftless Area. The prairie grasses jutting through the snow, the little country churches, and the birch trees dotting the hillsides all quietly dazzled. I passed through Viroqua, near the headquarters of the Organic Valley dairy coöperative, one of the few economic bright spots in rural Wisconsin. A few miles outside of town, I saw a factory farm with several thousand cows crammed into enormous confinement barns. The stench was overwhelming.

I turned onto Volenec’s road, passing St. John Nepomuc, the Catholic church that the Volenec family has been attending for three generations. Charles Volenec, Jerry’s father, had told me that the congregation was dwindling and that his grandson, who graduated from high school this year, was the church’s only altar boy. The road was lined with cornfields.

In his office, Jerry told me he had written a poem after Sonny Perdue’s talk in Madison. He called it a commentary on “Get big or get out”:

I was told to buy a shovel
So I bought a shovel
I was told to dig
So I dug
What is the hole for I asked
For your neighbor, he has passed
I was told to keep digging
So I put my shovel to the task
A hole for each neighbor
Until I was the last
Keep digging I was told
I looked around and asked
Who for?
For yourself I was told
You are needed no more.

Volenec told me that he’s grateful to Trump for his political awakening. “I may as well have been asleep before 2016,” he said. “Without Trump’s arrogance, the way he behaves, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention. Provided that he doesn’t drive this country into the ground before he’s replaced, I think he’s woken up a lot of people.”

Volenec has recently found a renewed determination to help save family farms. He has become more active with his co-op and with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. And he has begun connecting with like-minded farmers across the country. “I started out fighting for my own well-being, my own survival,” he said. “It’s evolving for me. I want to be on the right side of what’s coming next.”

His current mood reminded him of an unruly cow that once wandered off his farm. “I was on a four-wheeler and was trying to round her up,” he said. “I chased her round and round. Then she got tired of me chasing her and she stopped, turned, and she was going to fight. She was too tired to run, but she was going to use what she had left. She was challenging me—she was going to fight. I guess that’s where I’m at. I’m running my ass off, I’m tired, and I don’t have the energy to run anymore. But, by God, I’ve got enough in me to stand here and fight.”

Video Of Pile-Up On Highway 39, Waushara County

Let us be clear about why this mass crash took place.

For decades this stretch of farmland in Waushara County and near Portage County has been allowed to be misused by the owner.  When one drives through this section of the two counties on Highway 39 it is clear that the fields are stark.  ‘No trees’ will be the first thing that comes to your mind.

The trees were cut down when I was a boy—and though I am still a boy at heart—-that was over 40-plus years ago. Soon thereafter the fields started to blow away.  They planted windbreaks and it helped.  They then removed them, too.  It’s so stupid, and awful, that the windbreaks have all been taken out for a few more inches of farmland.

And this video is the result.

Why local authorities do not cite the large corporate farmer for the damage that is done to the land, and in this case below to nearly 30 vehicles, remains stunning for rational folks to ponder.


Massive Pile-Up On Both Lanes Of Hwy. 39, Waushara County

Huge pile-ups are reported in both the north and south lanes of Highway 39 on the border of Waushara and Portage County.  It took place a short time ago. Complete blackout from the dirt being blown over the major highway.   This has long been a problem as large farm operations have not been forced to plant tree rows and take other corrective measures to stem this problem—which has been happening for decades.  Photos from Beth Juris.






Wisconsin Residents Can Not Feel Good About Senate Action Over Brad Pfaff

Partisanship took another nasty leap forward on Tuesday when the Wisconsin State Senate voted to deny Brad Pfaff’s nomination to head the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.  There would be no story here if there was a legal or ethical claim as to why the nomination should not have been approved.

But there was nothing more than a partisan snit over how agricultural and health issues had been dealt with by Pfaff over the past months.  To bring such base motives to the floor when a governor asks for the cabinet of his choice is a very sad chapter in our state.

There are plenty of places for political clashes to occur, and legitimately so.  But to have a spectacle of this type play out in the statehouse over a cabinet nomination was unseemly.

One of the salient points Pfaff made earlier this year was a need to pay more attention to farmers who feel suicidal.  He merely pushed back in public when the GOP tried to delay funding for a farmer suicide prevention program.  Anyone who has grown up in rural Wisconsin, where agricultural economics are often unsettling, understands why such funds are much needed.  That Republicans would retaliate for such concerns over mental health issues is simply outrageous.

People around the state, who follow the news but are not overly mindful of the politics of this story, need to be reminded that Pfaff was nominated in January.  During this process, he was supported by all trade associations and also by all those Republicans sitting on an oversight committee in February.

And then today on the Senate floor the vote fell along party lines.  Each of the 19 Republicans voted against Pfaff, while all 14 Democrats voted for him.  How the five Republican senators were united in supporting Pfaff in committee, but rejected him on the floor, is why there is much to feel lousy about following this vote.  Governing in our state is in serious trouble. According to the Legislature’s nonpartisan research office, the state Senate hasn’t fired a member of a governor’s Cabinet since at least 1987.

Fair play is how most Wisconsinites conduct themselves.  Our civics classes helped us to reason why the Executive should be allowed to fill a cabinet with the choices best suited for the needs of the time.  Unless there is a strong reason such as criminal behavior, ethical lapses, or moral impairments a governor should have the cabinet selections of their choosing.

Qualifications for the job, passion for farmers, and skills based on experience all would seem to be the desire for any legislature when selecting a person to lead this part of our state government.  Pfaff’s resume had everything anyone could wish for but was rejected for purely partisan reasoning.

There will be those within the GOP ranks who will spin this vote in an attempt to demonstrate why such an outcome was required on the Senate floor.  But for those in rural Wisconsin, who still feel a handshake and their word are as good as a contract,  will feel a sense of sadness about the way governing has broken down in our state.

Why Senator Ron Johnson Is Wrong About Farm Bill

There was a great deal of news this week which seemed to push many stories, that should be known about, lower on the pile.  One of those neglected articles was the lame excuse that Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson gave for voting against the farm bill.

Johnson used as his rationale that nearly 80 percent, roughly $682 billion, of the spending in the bill was directed to SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program.  In the rarefied air that Johnson breathes it must be nice to look down and give a bottom line perspective on life.

But if Johnson were to walk Main Street and talk with people he might be better able to see the reason SNAP is a program so much in use.  Never mind that it aids farmers tremendously, too.

The reason that so many people qualify for SNAP in a low unemployment economy is that his rich friends at Americans for Prosperity along with the hucksters at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce keep wages low and the minimum wage at $7.25.  That low wage is a crime!  There is no way that it is a living wage.

But while the low paid workers are being punched by Johnson he is more than happy to slap and smile at the biggest suckers at the welfare teat in the farm bill.  It might be interesting for everyone to know that in the bill is the corporate welfare lips of Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and the rest of the ilk who are chortling as they know their benefits are not income tested.  The factory farms which they own and which destroy drinking water, streams, and lakes will continue with Johnson’s blessings

Meanwhile we spend public money to stock lakes and streams with fish and improve habitat in our rural areas knowing that one person with a manure spreader can kill  years of needed investments.  It is galling to know what Johnson supports.

While Johnson is prattling on about SNAP and the need to save precious taxpayer dollars he is doubtlessly applauding the corporate welfare give-a-way Scott Walker provided to Kimberly Clark to keep an already profitable plant open at a time of record profits.  Folks need to know, also, that company pays NO Wisconsin income tax.

But the ones who face the scorn and ridicule from Johnson are those nasty people who just want food on the table at meal time.

And so it goes.