Southeastern Minnesota is beautiful country, with rolling hills along the Mississippi River. The largest city in the area is Winona, which has a population of about 30,000 with two universities and a technical college. Spreading out west of the river are hundreds of farms, an increasing number of which are organic.
Agribusiness interests have much bigger plans for the area. Throughout the decade, there has been a steady stream of farmers who wish to expand their livestock operations. In 2001, under pressure from such forces to maximize production, the Winona County Commissioners increased the number of animals routinely permitted on a farm to a limit of 1500 animal units which is equivalent to either 1100 dairy cows or 5000 swine. The County Board may still deny a Conditional Use Permit for operations below this limit, but its decision must be based on evidence and specific, science-based reasoning.
The size of farms and their stewardship of the land became a major issue of debate in Winona County. Many people favored smaller farms and organic agriculture. But the Minnesota Legislature authorized state assistance to counties who embrace industrial-scale agriculture. Administered by the Department of Agriculture, the effort was deceptively called the Livestock Friendly Counties Program. Most prominently, the program only assists counties that have no limit to the allowable size of livestock feedlots. In 2004, the legislature even considered a bill that would entirely remove local permitting authority over feedlots. The measure failed, but the battle continued.
Dwayne Voegeli burst on the scene in 2002 as a Green candidate for the Winona County Commission. Voegeli had a background as a social studies teacher at the local high school. He was endorsed by the Winona County Green Party and widely praised in the two local newspapers as a man who valued both ecology and democracy. His public endorsements included letters from Kevin Rafferty, Julie Prondzinski, Clay and Cherisa Templeton, Richie Swanson, Joyce Ford, Lorraine Redig, Dean Lanz, Michael Sersch, Marci Hitz, Betty Darby, Monica De Grazia, Sarah Dixen, and Jenny Shanahan.
During his campaign for office, Voegeli himself made a number of statements that seemed to offer opposition to factory farms. Just before the primary, Voegeli was interviewed by the Winona Daily News, and according to the reporter he was “concerned about wells being contaminated with nitrates” and said that he “favors the county controlling large feed lots.” He offered similar views just before the general election, when the same reporter wrote, “Being the fourth generation raised on a Wisconsin farm, Voegeli wants to fight pollution while supporting family farms.”
Three years later, something had changed.
In 2005, Sauer Family Farms petitioned Winona County for a permit to increase the number of hogs raised on their farm near Lewiston. Chris Sauer and his brother, Jason already had one of the largest livestock farms in the county, with 1,500 hogs split between two locations. But that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted to consolidate and expand their operation increasing it to 2,100 hogs on one farm. The crux of the proposal would be a giant concrete pit, under two hog barns, that would hold almost one million gallons of manure.
Sauer argued that the proposal would increase the benefits of natural fertilizer for their 1,700 acres of row crops. He explained, “We’re only trying to be more efficient.” Kay Peterson countered that “efficiency” was not necessarily a virtue. She pointed to the folly of efficiently concentrating a million gallons of manure on land right above a trout stream.
Other neighbors of the Sauer farm also voiced strong objection to the proposal. At a four-hour public hearing described as “contentious” by the reporter for the Winona Daily News, Jim Gurley challenged the notion that the scale of the Sauer Family Farm fit the character of the surrounding countryside. Gurley said, “He may call it a family farm, but the numbers make it an industrial operation.”
Jim Riddle, an organic inspector and the immediate past chairman of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, pointed out that the hogs were being raised for Tyson Foods, Inc. a corporation that proudly identifies itself as the “world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, the second-largest food company in the Fortune 500, and a member of the S&P 500.” The goal of Tyson’s Horizontal Integration is to make the corporation the “largest provider of protein products on the planet.” Riddle argued that if the Sauer Conditional Use Permit were approved, it would set a precedent for land use in Winona County.
The Winona newspapers published passionate letters and a guest editorial about the ecological risk and the injustice of supporting agribusiness at the expense of the community. The debate raged for weeks. The position of the local Chamber of Commerce was that the surrounding community should have no right to limit the size of an industrial operation on private land. The editorial board of the Winona Daily News argued that bigger farms were necessary and not a matter of choice.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Voegeli wrote a warm, fuzzy letter about how great it was for people to “share their thoughts” in public debate. He was particularly impressed by how poised and articulate the president of the local Chamber of Commerce was. He wrote, “Last night’s meeting was a great day for local democracy in Winona County.”
Two weeks later, Dwayne Voegeli cast the deciding vote in favor of the feedlot. He was the only member of the Green Party among the five members of the commission. The newspaper reported:
The permit was approved on the swing vote of Commissioner Dwayne Voegeli .
Commissioners Duane Bell and Jerry Heim voted against the permit. Bell cited health concerns and said he has never received so many calls on an issue. Heim said he had received calls “running 10 to one against.”
But as downwinder Susan Sommers noted a few days later, the majority on the County Board decided that supporting large business growth was more important than ecology or human health. Commissioner Voegeli tried to cover his tracks with the promise of “electrostatic biocurtain” mitigation technology one of the conditions of approval that were described in the official proceedings of the meeting. Neighbors of the feedlot later found such promises easy to ridicule when their backyard air still smelled like hog farts.
In stark contrast, the editorial board of the Winona Daily News specifically praised Voegeli for his “politically courageous” support for the fetid feedlot and mammoth manure pit:
It is a good decision, and we have Commissioner Dwayne Voegeli to thank for it .
In his life away from the county board, Voegeli is a teacher, but that Tuesday morning he taught a civics lesson that those who serve at all levels of government would do well to attend to.
Well done, Dwayne.
The social studies teacher had developed some important friends, and the party had only just begun.
* * *
Eight months later, Smith Family Farms sought to expand part of their agribusiness that extends across 37 different farms in three counties, totaling more than 6,000 acres. They raise 4,000 hogs and 200 dairy cows in concentrated warehouses, similar to other factory farms. They applied for a permit to increase one particular feedlot to 2,400 hogs in Wiscoy Township. The proposal was for two hog barns and two manure pits each holding 500,000 gallons.
Before the Winona County Planning and Zoning Commission had considered the permit, 41 citizens of Wiscoy Township unanimously adopted a resolution in opposition to the feedlot at their annual township meeting in March. The theme of the resolution was the substantial risk of the proposed operation to the health of nearby residents and to the surrounding environment. Another resolution was also unanimously passed to consider a temporary moratorium on all permits for new or expanded “confinement operations with more than 300 animal units.”
A week later, Jim Riddle provided both Winona newspapers with a detailed argument against the conditional use permit. His first point was that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already found excess fecal coliform bacteria in nearby Money Creek. Fecal coliform itself is not pathogenic, but it is an indicator species for the presence of dangerous pathogens that cause diseases such as typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis or dysentery.
Riddle explained that if the county were to authorize new sources of animal waste into a watershed that was already identified as polluted, that would be a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Furthermore, Money Creek happens to be a designated trout stream, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The potential of chronic leaks or catastrophic spills of hog manure would put this fish habitat into further jeopardy.
Meanwhile, the local Chamber of Commerce was very much in favor of expanded hog “production” for “jobs”. They discounted the arguments of the organic inspector including the idea of the precautionary principle. They urged the citizens to only consider the animal confinement operation as a source of beneficial fertilizer. As for those incredibly noxious fumes, well that would be just a small price for prosperity.
In the end, the decision came down to the five people on the county commission. Two were quickly against the application, while two were strongly in favor of it. Only the chairman of the committee was undecided. He publicly waffled and delayed. The committee met two extra times before they finally decided.
Once again, Dwayne Voegeli, the representative of the Green Party cast the deciding vote in favor of a larger lagoon of manure.
Three months later, Voegeli supported a third feedlot. This time it was for 1300 dairy cows, with a pit holding 5.7 million gallons of manure. Despite its enormity, there was little vocal opposition to the feedlot, and the vote on the commission was unanimous. Voegeli joked, “I guess we just like cows more than pigs.” Perhaps the citizens had been metaphorically beaten into submission by the futility of trying to reason with a majority of their elected representatives including the one with the “Green” label.
Writing for the antithesis of green ideology, the President of the Winona Chamber of Commerce chirped, “Good call Commissioner!”
MIKE KNAPP lives in Minnesota. He can be reached through his website: Knappster.