Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dairy Farm Poop Stench Angers Town

The owner of the Maple Leaf Dairy in Wisconsin cries ecoterrorism. Opponents say the farm is responsible for sickening odors and damage to the local watershed, which feeds into nearby Lake Michigan. Opposition to his farm is so intense that he contends that vandals opened a valve of a holding structure and sent thousands of gallons of liquid manure cascading over his property on Oct. 12... (there's more)

Manure from this dairy farm in the Town of Centerville in Manitowoc County is at the center of a dispute between owner Tod Leiteritz and some of his neighbors — a problem seen around the state as dairy farms get bigger and non-farming homeowners move in. Leiteritz started farming in 1978 with five cows on 160 acres. Today, he is the fifth-largest dairy farmer in the state, employing 50 people and managing a herd of almost 3,500 cattle on about 5,000 acres.

Neighbors opposing the growth of Tod Leiteritz’s dairy have posted signs. A neighborhood group called Centerville Cares has filed suit in Manitowoc County contesting Leiteritz’s permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

Jose Romero of Cleveland milks cows at Tod Leiteritz’s Maple Leaf Dairy in Manitowoc County. Leiteritz says vandals have caused problems on his large dairy farm, which is mired in a dispute with neighbors over odor and pollution accusations.

It also has provoked confrontations, lawsuits and a regulatory record that stands three feet high.

Opposition to his farm is so intense that Leiteritz contends that vandals opened a valve of a holding structure and sent thousands of gallons of liquid manure cascading over his property on Oct. 12.

There have been other cases of vandalism, and in frustration, Leiteritz is offering a $15,000 reward leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the manure pumping.

The controversy over Maple Leaf Dairy is perhaps the most divisive battle today between a Wisconsin farmer and his neighbors, and it underscores the sometimes uneasy relations in farm country as urbanites keep moving in while dairy farms keep growing.

Opponents say the farm is responsible for sickening odors and damage to the local watershed, which feeds into nearby Lake Michigan.

State agriculture officials have offered - to no avail - to bring the two sides together.

And in a sign of how far relations have eroded, Andrew Hanson, a lawyer for the neighbors group Centerville Cares, called Maple Leaf Dairy "the environmental equivalent of a neighborhood crack house."

"It's been a series of problems out there."

Leiteritz's attorney, Todd Palmer of Madison, said the accusation was "irresponsible."

Manure - with all of its odor and potential to pollute - is frequently a source of tension in rural Wisconsin.

It was responsible for 52 pollution cases between June 1, 2004, and July 1 of this year, according to the Department of Natural Resources. This included 17 fish kills and the contamination of 20 private water supplies.

At some of the wells, "liquid manure was coming right out of the tap," said Gordon Stevenson, chief of the runoff management section of the DNR and manure regulator for 21 years.

"This is the worst year I've seen."

Currently, there are a half-dozen enforcement cases against dairy farms over manure pollution, Stevenson said.

"I subscribe to the notion that a majority of the problems are caused by a small minority operating in vulnerable areas," he said.

But there are some trends:

• The growing use of liquid manure systems has exacerbated problems because the mix of water, urine and manure spreads more quickly across the land. Manure otherwise is scattered in a dry or semi-dry state and allowed to decompose.

• Most pollution cases are taking place on dairy farms with 200 or more head of cattle.

• Most of this year's problems took place in February and March - when farmers applied manure on frozen ground, and heavy rains followed.

Today, the largest 140 dairy farms own 10% of all of the dairy livestock, state figures show.

The average size of a dairy herd increased 22% to 78 cows between 2000 and 2004. And larger herds - those with 500 cows or more - increased 43% during the same period, according to state figures.

As dairy herds have grown, "you have more challenges," observed Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen.

"And then you have more and more people wanting to live in the country, you have sprawl, and that can lead to conflict."

In the hope of reducing conflict between farmers and non-farmers, new livestock siting regulations are now before the Legislature.

The regulations include an "odor standard" that requires farms to adopt management practices to reduce manure smells.

The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, a farm group founded in 2000 after some farmers were stopped from expanding, said the odor standard goes too far and will be costly for many farmers to implement.

But Laurie Fischer, the group's executive director, said the siting rule is important because standards are needed as dairy farms are poised to expand.

Milk prices have risen from an average of $12.90 in 2003 for every 100 pounds sold to $16.90 in 2004. The average price paid to farmers this year is $15.63, according to government figures.

"Two years ago, we had lowest milk prices in 20 years," Fischer said. "No one grew.

"Now you can see that some farmers are starting to think seriously about expanding, and now I am starting hear more about conflict on the town level."

The elongated barns of Maple Leaf Dairy dwarf the size of neighboring farms along I-43 in the Town of Centerville.

Prevailing winds often push the aroma of manure eastward to neighbors along the lake.

That doesn't help Leiteritz with his neighbors, said the DNR's Bryan Ellefson.

"Typically there is a different mind-set for people who live close to the lake than those who live farther in," said Ellefson, a wastewater specialist with the DNR.

Also, his use of a system that automatically flushes manure on the barn floor with a mixture of manure, water and urine causes him problems. The system saves time and labor, but it generally produces more odor, Ellefson said.

Nothing against dairy farms
Russ Tooley said he has nothing against dairy farms.

"They can get as big and ugly as they want," said Tooley, who lives along the lake and is president of Centerville Cares.

"But you have to be able to breathe the air, and the water has to be able to support fish. As a neighbor, I can't stand (the smell), and he's killing all of the fish."

Opponents point to two recent incidents that underscore their concerns.

First, a Sept. 9 fish kill that claimed about 2,000 forage fish and 100 game fish in Fischer Creek.

And second, an Oct. 13 runoff of manure from a drain tile that runs through Maple Leaf Dairy and into the creek.

The DNR has never taken action against Leiteritz's farm for manure problems. And officials said they are still investigating these latest cases.

But DNR documents of the investigation appear to trace the source of pollution in both cases to the Leiteritz property.

Leiteritz insisted that he is not the source of the pollution and that other farmers in the area could be responsible for the manure spills.

Leiteritz is 55 years old and started farming in 1978 with five cows on 160 acres.

Today, he is the fifth-largest dairy farmer in the state. He employs 50 people and manages a herd of nearly 3,500 cattle on almost 5,000 acres.

But he says his success has been tarnished by harassment from environmentalists and their lawyers.

"I think it's unjust, to say the least," Leiteritz said. "We're just like anyone else - we're trying to make a living."

Leiteritz and his attorney aren't pointing their fingers at Centerville Cares. But they say someone is vandalizing Maple Leaf Dairy.

In addition to the October manure spill, farm employees also recently found all of the caps and a dipstick that protects engine fluids removed from a large four-wheel-drive tractor.

And in another incident, several of the farm's livestock gates were opened, allowing 50 to 75 dairy cattle to meander out of their barns and onto fields.

Last year, Leiteritz and his employees had arguments with a neighbor who they claim drove over the centerline with his vehicle as they approached with large pieces of farm equipment.

Palmer, the attorney for Leiteritz, has contacted the FBI office in Green Bay because he said the vandalism smacks of "ecoterrorism" and that federal laws may have been violated.

Leiteritz says he has spent more than $1 million in improvements so that his farm will exceed standards for large confined animal feeding operations.

Unlike smaller farms, large confined feeding operations - any farm with 1,000 animal units or more - must be granted an operating permit by the DNR and file detailed periodic reports of manure spreading and other activities.

An animal unit is a method of measuring livestock on farms. One thousand animal units equal about 700 milking cows.

It's taken more than three years to obtain Leiteritz's latest operating permit from the DNR.

And in recent weeks, Centerville Cares has filed suit in Manitowoc County contesting the permit, arguing that the DNR has never fully analyzed the pollution impact of the farm.

Maple Leaf Dairy also stirred tensions in 2002 when Leiteritz proposed to expand his farm to 9,000 animal units, which would have made it the largest dairy farm in the state.

Leiteritz's expansion plans are on hold for now. But he has moved forward with a large construction project next to his farm that could accommodate thousands of additional cattle.

He said he prefers "slow, steady growth," but if he continues to be challenged, "we will go faster."

This troubles Hanson, the lawyer for Centerville Cares, because he sees large dairy farms as the next step to vertically integrated agriculture, where large corporations control all facets of production.

"Who can afford to take that over?" he asked. "It's Land O'Lakes (the large Minnesota-based cooperative) and Kraft."

Leiteritz bristles at such talk. He said he is merely trying to build a business.

"Where else but in farming do you hear people complain that business is getting too big?" he asked.

Said Palmer, his attorney:

"Like it or not, the dairy industry in this state is undergoing a revolution," Palmer said.

"I think what you see here is that family farm of the future."

Read the article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Big farm, big feud: Giant dairy's manure angers neighbors

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