BENOIT - Every Tuesday, one can find cattle and dairy farmers from across Northwestern Wisconsin gathered in a barn behind the Benoit Dairy.
It’s a National Farmers Organization barn, and Tuesdays are the days farmers bring their cattle to market. These particular cows and steers that are sold and trucked out are only a couple of stops away from becoming the hamburger and choice cuts found in local groceries. Put bluntly, they’re slaughter cows.
“Tell people we’re feeding the world,” said Mark Johnson, an Ashland farmer.
The prospect of a major hog farrowing farm - one where piglets are born and raised for a few weeks or months - coming into Bayfield County brought raucous discussion into the barn office last week. An application was filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in December that would make it the first so-called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation in a county widely known for its apple orchards and family farms. The operation could have as many as 20,000 to 25,000 pigs on site at any given time.
Almost to a man, the prospect was OK in the farmers’ book.
“If we tell that man how to farm, you know what? We’re on the wrong side of the world,” said Bill Johnson from behind a desk, drawing the insinuation that this isn’t communist China.
Another farmer called it a Wal-Mart farm in a Wal-Mart world.
“It’d be better to have 40 farms with 500 hogs than one with 20,000,” Carl Taylor said. “But you can’t sustain a livelihood on 500 hogs.”
By the time Jameson Hecimovich walked in, the matter seemed settled. Across the doorway from him sat his grandfather, Bernard Hecimovich, who has ceded the family farm to young Jameson. Jameson said he’d been reading numerous accounts of the proposed CAFO, an acronym commonly pronounced as K-Fo.
“It worries me,” Jameson said in a mild rebuttal to what his elders had offered. “People up here are worried about the water.”
Why Bayfield County? On its website, Reicks View Farms says it was founded by fifth-generation pork producers, Dale and Laura Reicks, in 1977. It’s based in the tiny northeastern Iowa town of Lawler. An operation that began with 240 acres and 200 sows has grown to employ more than 150 people and include what the company calls 40 production partners. Reicks View Farms, though, continues to identify itself as a “family farm” on its website.
Mary Dougherty of Bayfield, a staunch and well-informed detractor of Reicks View Farms’ planned CAFO near Benoit, disagrees with that characterization.
“He’s not a farmer; he’s a factory,” she said. “Last year he brought 610,000 hogs to market - that’s six times the population of Duluth.”
While a Reicks View Farms spokesperson refused an interview request, the company has issued a statement to the News Tribune and other media outlets saying it is “exploring the potential construction of a swine operation in northern Wisconsin. If the company would move forward with the project, there would be a permitting process that will include public comment and feedback.”
The answer to the question of why Reicks View Farms would expand to Bayfield County is a fuzzy one.
William Bussey is a member of the Bayfield County Board of Supervisors. He is not alone in his recent practice of gathering all the information he can on CAFOs. He’s also not alone in speculating that Reicks View Farms appears intent on expanding out of Iowa, in part, to get away from a fast-moving virus that is killing pigs across dozens of states and is especially prone to killing piglets.
“As they grow, they’re not as susceptible,” Bussey said. “Reicks View Farms is looking for a place that’s isolated - simply to farrow piglets, nurse them for 21 days and ship them back to Iowa to raise them to market weight.”
But a check with the Bayfield County real property lister, Lynn Divine, revealed another possible motivation. Reicks View Farms bought 568.4 acres in the county, in multiple and mostly contiguous parcels from two separate landowners near the corner of Franzel and Curry roads in the town of Eileen, close to Benoit and about 8 miles southwest of Ashland.
The company paid about $1.23 million to Keith and Donna Grubisic for 560.6 of those acres, Divine said. A grandchild on the Grubisics’ farm across from the land they sold to Reicks View Farms said the couple is retiring but doesn’t have any interest in speaking about the sale or Reicks View Farms’ intent for the land. Robert and Janice Karaba sold the other parcel - 7.8 acres for $11,715, Divine said. The total land sales equate to $2,178 per acre.
The farmers at the NFO barn said they believe money is the primary motivator driving Reicks View Farm’s interest in Bayfield County. The value of rich Iowa farmland, despite recent price drops, remains near an all-time high, with various online reports putting costs between $12,000 and $15,000 per acre. Additionally, export demand and the live price for hogs are and have been down.
Piglets born in Bayfield County could be shipped back to Iowa for finishing, loaded hundreds to a truck, the NFO farmers said, making trucking costs relatively insignificant compared to what Reicks View Farms saved by purchasing land in Wisconsin instead of Iowa.
“It’s economics,” Taylor said. “The land is so much cheaper up here.”
A preliminary application filed with the DNR in December shows that Reicks View Farms wants to build three large barns on property at the corner of Franzel and Curry roads - one for breeding and gestation, one for farrowing and one for “gilt development and nursery,” with manure storage under each structure. One of the barns would be nearly 900 feet long and nearly 200 feet wide, according to a preliminary design.
Controversy ensues The farmers gathered in Benoit wondered aloud why anybody would get in the way of a farmer doing business, especially when there are existing regulations mixed with the understanding that farmers consider themselves good stewards of the land.
Bringing in a big farm? “It’s not Chernobyl,” Taylor said.
And Johnson added, “We all want clean water - Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, all over.”
But detractors of Reicks View Farms’ efforts to move into the county aren’t convinced by arguments that rely on trust. A Facebook group - Citizens Concerned about the Reicks View CAFO in Bayfield County - had nearly 400 members as of late last week.
Bussey was among a handful of county emissaries that visited Reicks View Farms’ Iowa operation on Jan. 15. While he came away impressed by the family and its operation that goes further than some others by using concrete basins under the barn for manure collection versus exposed lagoons, knifing its manure into the soil versus aerial spraying and requiring things such as showers for all personnel going in and out of the barn (to prevent animal infection), he remained unconvinced of the farm’s viability in Bayfield County.
“It’s just not an appropriate fit for Bayfield County and its environmental and agricultural local ethic; I much prefer it was located elsewhere,” he said. “The scale of this is unprecedented.
“We’re talking about 7,500 sows and as many as 14,000 piglets and another 4,000 gilts - sows that have not been bred,” he continued. “This is much larger than any agricultural entity in Bayfield or Ashland counties at this point. The quantity of manure generated by an operation this size is one of the concerns. How well does red clay take this stuff?”
Other concerns, he said, are odor in a county with an extensive tourism economy, the spread of pathogens, and the ethics of raising animals in stalls in which there’s not enough room for individual animals to turn around. The board will meet again Tuesday to continue to address the CAFO, including voting on a recommended ordinance that would prohibit aerial spraying of manure as fertilizer.
“It’s certainly the way it is in Iowa,” Bussey said. “It may be the reality of our current existence that factory farms are an essential part of providing the food we are eating today. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to locate them everywhere.”
For Dougherty, the argument goes beyond the “not in my backyard” mantra. She’s a mother of five and has taken the lead in a preemptive movement she said is intended to protect nearby Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior.
“My primary opposition is the threat CAFOs pose to water quality,” she said. “Speaking to the NIMBYs thing: My answer is that it’s not our backyard. Lake Superior is 10 percent of the world’s freshwater. Is the value of cheap bacon and pork tenderloin equal to the value of the world’s freshwater? The question is not even in the same stratosphere as ‘not in my backyard.’ ”
Dougherty described the proposed CAFO as 8 miles from the bay as the crow flies, and the bay itself as a relative bathtub with shallow waters near the shoreline that curve from Bayfield to Ashland and allow lake-goers to wade far out from shore in spots. She and Bussey both cited Kewaunee County in east-central Wisconsin as a prime example of the problems that can come from CAFOs. A judge in 2014 ruled that one of many CAFOs there - a dairy operation - was responsible for polluting wells in the county.
CAFOs are relatively common in southern and central Wisconsin - but the one near Benoit, if it is built, would be 50-60 miles north of the next-farthest-north CAFO in the state, according to DNR maps.
The prospect of one CAFO leading to the introduction of several more has Bussey wondering aloud what Bayfield County can do, with supervisors only allowed to follow the limits of existing state statutes.
Dougherty said she is planning to have tested the runoff from the new Reicks View Farms property so that there is a baseline going forward. She also called on the DNR to require an Environmental Impact Statement be done for the property.
“Whatever little control they have left, they’re charged with protecting our shared natural resource and I assume they’re going to do their jobs,” Dougherty said.
Nancy Larson is the DNR’s water program leader for northern Wisconsin. She said Reicks View Farms, under the corporate name Badgerwood, has made the preliminary application that amounts to “a heads-up” for its intention to bring in a farm with 26,000 head of swine. What follows will be a more detailed application, likely within a year, that outlines “what fields they’ll use for land spreading their manure, nutrient requirements on those fields - a much more detailed application,” Larson said.
As far as an environmental impact statement, Larson said, “that’s a decision we’ll make based on what we see for the final application.”
Going forward Scottie Sandstrom is the executive director of the Bayfield Economic Development Corporation. He arranged the visit to Iowa to tour Reicks View Farms. He sees his role as that of an information gatherer who brings parties together.
“A lot of fear is going rampant,” he said. “A lot of folks don’t gather the info.”
He agreed with the idea that the city of Bayfield, about 25 miles north of the proposed farm, is a community with “a New England quaintness” - but he’s also missioned to support economic progress within the county as a whole.
Caught in the middle, he said he’s trying to inform and understand. He likes the idea floated by some concerned citizens that would use adjustments to zoning ordinances as a way to prevent one CAFO from opening the floodgates to many more.
“It would be quite a project to take on if townships within the county would want to do this type of thing,” he said.
Until that day comes, Bussey said, he believes there’s nothing that can be done to stop the first one.
“They’re coming,” he said of Reicks View Farms. “They’ve purchased the property. They’ve applied for the temporary preliminary application with the state. … They seem to be well run. We should have regulations in place, and we’ll try to act responsibly.”