Author to activist: Bayfield woman leads opposition to corporate farms near Lake Superior and beyond

BAYFIELD -- "Water protector." It's a term given meaning in North Dakota, where outside the home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protesters calling themselves water protectors have camped since the middle of last year in opposition to the Dakota...

Mary Dougherty of Bayfield stands on the dock near the Madeline Island ferry Island Queen during a snowfall earlier this winter. Dougherty, 47 and mother of five children, is helping to lead the charge against corporate farming in the state of Wisconsin. Bob King /
Mary Dougherty of Bayfield stands on the dock near the Madeline Island ferry Island Queen during a snowfall earlier this winter. Dougherty, 47 and mother of five children, is helping to lead the charge against corporate farming in the state of Wisconsin. Bob King /

BAYFIELD - "Water protector."

It's a term given meaning in North Dakota, where outside the home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protesters calling themselves water protectors have camped since the middle of last year in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Much news continues to be made on that front as camps of protesters challenge the effort to run the pipeline under the Missouri River.

More than 450 miles due east can be found another sort of water protector in Mary Dougherty - a food blogger, wife and mother of five who grew her reputation as an activist in recent years by standing up against corporate farming's effort to get closer to Lake Superior than it ever has before.

"I went to Standing Rock in November," said Dougherty, pushing sizzling vegetables with a wooden spoon over an impressive commercial range she had installed in her kitchen. "I did 'Words for Water' there."


Words for Water is Dougherty's ongoing project that finds her photographing people holding a chalkboard onto which they've scrawled short expressions of what water means to them. The trip from "the Great Lakes to the Great Plains," as she tabbed it, saw the 47-year-old Dougherty find a multitude of kindred spirits. The author of two "Stink-In" rallies opposing corporate farming at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, Dougherty generally presses her influence by networking with fellow citizens and government officials, starting with the local-most bodies.

"As citizens, we're being forced to explore the outer limits of our local government authority," she said, "because the state is not protecting us."

A one-time restaurant owner and soon-to-be-published cookbook author, Dougherty rose to local prominence in 2014, when she led opposition to a corporate hog farm from Iowa that had bought land and filed permits to open a so-called concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Bayfield County.

To help stall that development, Dougherty employed her brand of opposition by working board rooms and phone lines as well as the front lines at events such as Bayfield's annual Pie and Politics affair. Her efforts to protect the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior just blocks from her home have so far proven effective. The Badgerwood LLC farm that proposed bringing a 25,000-hog farrowing operation to Bayfield County would appear to be in limbo, and Northwestern Wisconsin county governments are moving in the interim to install ordinances that would define the sort of agriculture the counties prefer.

"Mary has got a knack for organizing," said Kendra Kimbirauskas, a farmer and chief executive officer for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project based in Salem, Ore. "She's forward-thinking and looks at being creative with the public and elected officials. She asks, 'What is it we can do to truly protect what we value here as residents?' That's not where all communities are at. Usually, we get calls for help from communities that are in crisis."

Dougherty was so effective in persuading her community to mobilize against the prospective hog farm that SRAP hired her to be an area consultant. She's now working with other counties in the state - including Kewaunee, St. Croix and Crawford - in their efforts to stem the environmental impacts of corporate farming.

On Wednesday, Dougherty and her group, Farms Not Factories, are co-organizing the first Citizens' Water Lobby Day at the state capitol in Madison. An anonymous donation of six charter buses inspired the event that will feature information tables, connect citizens to legislators and culminate with a silent march - all in an effort, its promotional flyer says, "to demand responsible water policy from elected officials."

"We're all fighting the same fight on different fronts," Dougherty said. "Our intent is to bring us all together and speak with one voice so that we can leverage our individual might. We're up against a huge industry that's entrenched in our political system. They don't want people to stand in the way of modern agriculture."


The CAFO conundrum

Agriculture is an $88.3 billion industry in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' annual statistics, and it's widely understood that the state is the second-largest milk producer in the country, trailing only California.

A large measure of that production comes from its largest farms which are regulated by the Wisconsin DNR as CAFOs. With CAFOs, the number of animals at one facility can get into the thousands and even tens of thousands.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported last September that there are 285 CAFOs operating in the state, and that a 2017-19 biennial budget request from the DNR proposed "increasing staff dedicated to the CAFO program from 17 to 21 by reallocating positions." By contrast, in 1995, there were 40 CAFOs in the state, the Capital Times of Madison reported.

To hear multiple sources for this story tell it, CAFOs have the potential to stress both the air and nearby water sources for the way they depart from traditional farming. In the age-old farming scenario, animals were raised largely in pastures and enjoyed a circle-of-life relationship with their surroundings - their grazing waste fertilizing the land and giving rise to the plants to feed them.

In a CAFO, large groups of animals tend to be raised in buildings and their waste collected in lagoons or underground pits. The waste is stored until it can be spread onto fields when conditions are optimal for the process.

Excess waste not accepted by the soil, or manure spread in undesignated areas, has the potential to damage wells or run off into trout streams and other waterways. When it does, it introduces excess amounts of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that can damage the critical balance found in natural freshwater and lead to algae blooms and water that loses its potability.

Mark Liebaert is chairman of the Douglas County Board of Supervisors and owner of a 100-plus-year-old generational beef cattle farm in South Range.


"Farming, by its very nature, has effects and you just can't help that you change the landscape," he said. "Our duty is to make sure the effects are offset, mitigated, controlled or minimized and I just don't see those same things happening with CAFOs."

CAFOs grew up in California in the 1970s and other agricultural centers followed suit, ushering in an era informally referred to in farming as "get big or get out." The large corporate farms are protected by the same right-to-farm laws across the states that insulate any farm from nuisance and other lawsuits.

One of Dougherty's go-to resources in the fight to address the spread and influence of CAFOs has been Gordon Stevenson. The former chief of runoff management for the Wisconsin DNR retired from his post on the same day Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011. The timing was coincidence, but it's symbolic of the distance Stevenson has put between himself and the state's current direction. Stevenson said he believes "Wisconsin is overbooked with livestock," and called Dougherty "a force of nature" for the way she's rallied support to the cause.

"With the nitrogen and phosphorous that comes from it, what really frightens me is the specter of pathogens," he said. "With more and more of this untreated liquid manure we're putting rural populations at health risks."

Depending on its size, a single CAFO can produce the same amount of waste as a town or small city with none of the waste treatment requirements of a municipality, several sources explained. CAFOs are only required by the DNR to have the requisite amount of land to spread their large amounts of manure. That would seem to be the hangup with the Badgerwood farm in Benoit, southwest of Ashland - the first CAFO proposed in any of the state's counties bordering Lake Superior. The parent corporation, Reicks View Farms of Lawler, Iowa, has yet to supply written consent from some landowners upon whose property the proposed CAFO intended to spread manure. A spokesperson for the farm declined to speak with the News Tribune.

"It's been all quiet on the CAFO front in our county for a year and a half now," Bayfield County Supervisor William Bussey said. "It remains to be seen if that will continue to be the case, but the board, in its present make-up, will do what we need to do to protect the well-being of the area."

In 2015, Bayfield County was the first of the state's counties that surround Lake Superior to adopt ordinances that would legislate CAFOs above and beyond the authority of the DNR. In July 2016, the Wisconsin DNR rejected one such Bayfield County ordinance. The county is appealing the decision in circuit court, and Wisconsin Public Radio reported last summer that "county officials are working with the DNR to see if they can revise the ordinance to make it acceptable to the state."

At the crux of it, Bayfield County wants to enforce stipulations such as having 540 days of manure storage - a provision the county believes is necessary should conditions, such as extended frosts, prevent manure spreading. Oral arguments scheduled for December were postponed, Bussey said, as the parties agreed to see if they could reach a negotiated resolution. There is a status conference set for the end of February, Bussey said.


The News Tribune attempted to talk to 7th District Rep. Sean Duffy about CAFOs. Duffy, whose district includes all of Northwestern Wisconsin, was installed in January as the co-chair of the Congressional Dairy Farmer Caucus - a group made up of members of Congress "dedicated to educating other members on the importance of the dairy industry," read the news release announcing the post.

The news release featured testimonials to Duffy's leadership from a host of farming's largest state and national interest groups. But Duffy and his office failed to return multiple News Tribune inquiries aimed at discussing his assessment of the impact and regulation of CAFOs.

"They are agro-centric," Stevenson said of the DNR and state leadership. "They assure optimal ag production, and environmental protection is an afterthought."

Further internal restructuring to the Wisconsin DNR announced late last year could end up giving CAFOs and their private-sector consultants a greater role in drafting environmental permits, which would then be reviewed by the DNR.

Such a change has the potential to further empower already-powerful CAFOs, opponents say.

"The watchdogging," Dougherty said, "is now on us."

'I'd have never guessed'

Bussey represents Bayfield County District 2, which encompasses the town and city of Bayfield. Dougherty is among his constituents.


"Citizen input and citizen activism are extremely important and valuable to our society - whatever the issue," he said. "Water is a tremendous resource in our economy and way of life. Mary and others are making efforts to protect those resources."

Moving about her kitchen earlier this winter, snow fell in big flakes outside the windows. Dougherty spoke at a breakneck pace about the perils she sees in the agriculture industry. Every utterance packed a punch and she cited examples from across the state - contaminated wells, a retiring family farmer whose place lost property value when a CAFO moved in next door, algae blooms in Lake Michigan where there is a heavy concentration of CAFOs on its western shores.

Prior to her ascension as an activist, she'd operated Good Thyme Restaurant in Bayfield with a partner for four years.

"I never would have guessed I'd have the job of fighting CAFOs," Dougherty said. "I thought I'd be content writing cookbooks."

Her cookbook is a mix of essays and recipes scheduled to be published later this year by the University of Wisconsin Press. It's broken down by seasons and infused with an ethic of using locally sourced ingredients.

"The dysfunction I see in CAFOs is we've disconnected food from place," she said.

It appears as if the work of Dougherty and others has rattled enough cages to elicit some movement from the state.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January reported that state officials are considering an initiative that would subsidize up to $20 million for "systems to clean up manure and harness the waste as a source of natural gas." The newspaper posited the new direction was a response to mounting criticism.


Therein lies the silver lining for Dougherty.

"The story, as I work my way through this landscape, is not so much we're fighting CAFOs," she said. "CAFOs are the door we entered into this arena. What we're really doing is deciding, where does the buck stop? Do we cede all power to government or do we get involved so we can wrest power away from those who are hurting us?"

What To Read Next
Get Local