WCMA Perspectives | Contributing Columnist

Winning The Battle Of Perceptions

John Umhoefer executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

January 6, 2017


Around the nation, dairy’s most sensitive subject – and the key to its future – is the transition to modern, sustainable dairy farms.

In long-established dairy regions like Wisconsin and Minnesota, some consumer perceptions and expectations for dairy farms lag reality, and lead to uninformed opinions that larger, modern farms are more corporate and factory-like, less caring and less concerned with their place in the community.

It can be frustrating to face such baseless perceptions and maddening to see environmental groups leverage those perceptions to seek donations and press lawsuits. Yet at times, a valve breaks or management fumbles and an incident seems to indict thousands of hard-working family farms.

The dairy industry has to face these perceptions head-on. Clear, honest communication, matched by best practices and the aggressive uptake of technology and ideas can keep farms profitable while protecting everyone’s water and air.

Here’s a look at the latest challenges and opportunities in the battle of perceptions:

Dunn county, in northwest Wisconsin, passed an ordinance October 19 imposing a six-month ban on licensing any new livestock Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or licensing growth of more than 20 percent on existing CAFOs in the county.

The ordinance created a livestock operation study group to examine the impact of livestock CAFOs on groundwater, surface water, air quality and public health and safety.
The county may develop livestock licenses or operations licenses based on the study group recommendations.

honest communication, matched by best practices and the aggressive uptake of technology and ideas can keep farms profitable while protecting everyone’s water and air.

A similar proposal in neighboring St. Croix county, placed before the County Board on December 6, met a different end. Letters and testimony from the dairy farming community in this border county with Minnesota, as well as testimony from local dairy processor Burnett Dairy Cooperative, defeated a six-month moratorium. A study committee, similar to Dunn county, will explore the impact of CAFOs and other dischargers on the local environment.

Wells Challenged
In central Wisconsin, eight permits for new farm high capacity wells have been challenged by Clean Wisconsin, a Madison-based environmental advocacy group. For years, dairies and vegetable farms have been targeted in Wisconsin as the cause for surface water concerns.

In its suit, Clean Wisconsin lays out its damaging perceptions: “Over-pumping from high capacity wells has the potential to impact seepage lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands. Impacts include loss of surface area and volume, damage to fisheries and spawning areas, degradation of water quality, impacts to aesthetic beauty, impacts to navigation, and impacts to property values.”

Or not. There’s no consensus on the cause of some lower lake levels in central Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association has aligned with ag organizations in Wisconsin to intervene in this case, joining the Department of Natural Resources to challenge this take-down of agricultural wells.

Grass Roots Stewardship
Optimism abounds in a growing movement toward watershed-based farms groups in Wisconsin. Dane county dairymen organized as Yahara Pride Farms have built a voluntary certification program to improve water quality while balancing farm profitability. In 2015, the group calculated a 16,042-pound reduction in phosphorus run-off over three years due to practices like manure injection, strip tillage and use of cover crops.

Early in 2016, 35 dairy farms in Kewaunee county – a hotbed area in the debate over manure contamination of groundwater – formed Peninsula Pride Farms. The group will focus on voluntary adoption of farm practices to improve groundwater and surface water, and use monitoring and data analysis to drive continuous improvement.

Dairy Business Association, with an endorsement from WCMA, launched the Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance last year to support these local farm efforts and foster more groups across Wisconsin. In December, Foremost Farms USA formally teamed up with the Alliance, which seeks conservation groups, government agencies, processors and universities to join the effort.

The best answer to shrill claims about modern farming is proactive stewardship, documented progress, open doors for neighbors and honest communication. The key to dairy’s future is proving that modern family farms work for clean air and clean water, and care for the animals that feed us all. JU



John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org

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