Lincoln residents, Kinnard battle over expansion
On a beautiful fall day, the tiny hamlet of Lincoln last week looked like many of the pastoral small towns that dot the Wisconsin landscape.
On a high ridge on County S, the unincorporated village includes about 20 well-kept homes with flower gardens, a catholic church and a bar. Many of the homes have the traditional red or white barns in their backyard.
What makes this farm picture different, however, is a long line of metal-roofed barns to the northeast of town that house some of the 4,000 cows owned by the Kinnard family who live in three houses in the village, including the original white farmhouse that has been in the family for generations.
On Sept. 11, Kinnard Farms was granted a permit by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that has been the subject of a hotly contested legal battle with some of its neighbors.
The new permit will allow the farm to expand to 8,000 animal units and spread 70 million gallons of liquid manure and waste water from the barns on 6,000 acres in the surrounding towns of Lincoln, Red River and Casco and on approximately 2,000 acres near the town of Duvall that includes land in Door and Brown counties.
Their neighbors, county residents and environmental groups charge that the manure is polluting ground water in the area, fouling creeks and rivers in the watershed and creating air and noise pollution that has destroyed their peaceful rural life.
“I have lived here 47 years and I am going to keep fighting it,” said David Mindak.
Last October, the neighbors had won a partial victory in their battle to stop the permit when Administrative Judge Jeffrey Boldt called the condition of the groundwater in the towns “deplorable” and ordered the Kinnards to install off-site groundwater monitoring wells and cap the number of cows that the farm could add to its herd.
But on Sept. 11, the state Department of Justice said that the DNR had no authority to enforce the order, clearing the way for the permit’s approval.
“The DBA (Dairy Business Association) is a large lobbying group … they have a lot of power and money to influence people in Madison,” said Lynda Cochart, a neighbor who has not been able to use her well water in three years. She said she was not surprised by the decision.
“All we want is clean water and air,” she said.
Cochart says that the well on the 270-acre farm where she grew up is polluted by a bovine virus and she can’t use it to brush her teeth, cook or wash dishes. She can’t bathe her grandchildren for fear they will become ill and has to continually buy and haul bottled water at her own expense.
Stewards of the land
A June 2015 Kewaunee County voluntary well testing program found that more than 35 percent of the tested wells in the Town of Lincoln were unsafe due to bacteria or high levels of nitrates. A map supplied by the county shows a cluster of 5-7 wells near the Kinnard property that have bacteria that makes the wells unsafe to drink as well as several additional wells with nitrate levels that exceed the state standard of 10 ppm.
But Lee Kinnard disputes the numbers.
“The people here are looking for bad wells,” he said. “Of the 13 wells on our farm, we have never had a bad well test.”
He says that most of the wells that are contaminated are old wells that are not capped and don’t meet current codes.
“I have studies that show that well water in the Town of Lincoln is at or better than many of the wells in the state,” he said.
Lee gathered around the kitchen table in his modest family farm house with his older brother Rodney, his sister-in-law, Maureen, and his agronomist Nathan Nysse, last week to discuss the permit approval and his family’s plans to expand.
He said that the whole expansion is misunderstood.
“We have been exemplary neighbors and stewards of the land,” he says.
The family says that they are actually on a mission to strengthen agriculture in the county.
“We are huge believers in agriculture,” he says. “We keep trying to find ways to treat cows and employees better.”
Kinnard said that the farm employs 52 people.
“When we were growing up on the farm, our family were the only employees so we never had a day off,” he said. Kinnard said that his dad could never spend much time at family or community events because he always had to go back and take care of the animals.
“In my generation, all the kids were leaving the farms because they didn’t want to work Saturdays and Sundays.”
He said that the county actually has fewer cows than it did in the 1960s because so many people left their family farms.
“We have been successful in bringing those guys back,” he said.
He says that he and his families are continually looking at technologies to “do more with less.”
“If you don’t stay ahead of the technology you won’t succeed in your market,” he said.
Rodney said the primary motive for their expansion is “security.”
“It has been an incredible journey and it just keeps getting better,” he said about the farm’s ability to innovate and try new farm technologies and practices.
Nysee said the soil management on the farm is “science-based” and he manages for the sensitive soils in the area.
Much of the land where the Kinnards spread their manure is on fractured karst bedrock, which is particularly vulnerable to groundwater contamination.
“I agree that we have super fragile soil, but we have made huge strides in learning how to protect the ground and surface waters,” said Nysse.
That argument doesn’t sit well with neighbor Ericka Routhieaux who says she lives adjacent to the farm.
“The runoff pond from Kinnards is discharging into Casco Creek, and when my dog comes out of the creek he smells like dead animals,” she said. “The smell is awful … I can’t believe that the judge has reversed what Judge Boldt had been trying to accomplish.”
Routhieaux says they cannot sell the house they bought seven years ago to “live out in the country” because of the manure smell and pollution problems and she is worried about the health of her three children.
But Maureen Kinnard said that her three grandchildren live in a house down the road with a manure lagoon in their backyard and she is not concerned. Rodney said that they had plans to install new technologies that would address some of the neighbor’s concerns , but that the cost of the lawsuit has delayed the installation.
Most of the fields where Kinnards spread their manure are located in the Ahnapee River watershed. The Ahnapee River was placed on the EPA’s list of Impaired Waters for excessive phosphorus pollution in 2014..
Kinnard said that he was not aware that many of his farm’s fields were located in that watershed but that the farm has “miles and miles of streams and rivers along its fields.” Nysse said that the farm incorporates buffer zones along almost all of its stream banks to absorb nutrient and soil runoff.
Kinnard and Nysse say that their fields are just a small portion of the fields in the watershed and that the Nutrient Management Plans that are mandated by their CAFO permit prevent most phosphorus runoff and soil erosion.
Instead, they said that the 20 percent of farmers in the county who aren’t required to use Nutrient Management Plans may be responsible for the excess phosphorus polluting the river.
Kinnard said he knows that the neighbors blame his family for the pollution problems and he said that that one neighbor warned him that the situation could get violent. The Kinnards say that at least one of the neighbors who is complaining is a disgruntled former employee of the farm.
The Kinnards say that treating employees well is a priority.
“It is very satisfying day in and day out to work with the cows and people and watch the dairy succeed,” says manager Shaun Hardke, who grew up in Kewaunee County and has worked for Kinnard for 11 years.
But Stacy Harbaugh, a spokesperson for Midwest Environmental Advocates, which represents the neighbors and concerned citizens, said that the dairy is suceeding at the expense of its neighbors. She said the petitioners were reviewing their options for appeal and also may ask state legislators to tighten and clarify state laws regulating CAFOS.
“The Wisconsin Legislature continues to choose milk over clean water,” said Harbaugh.
After the DNR permit was granted Judge Boldt issued a letter citing a legal case, Maple Farms vs. DNR (2001), that he said demonstrates that the Wisconsin Legislature has “clearly and unambigiously” given the DNR specific authority to regulate off-site land spreading activities from a CAFO that impacts groundwater.
Harbaugh said that the case may form an important part of an appeal.
In the meantime, some county officials and others argue that the fragile karst bedrock over thin soils in the Town of Lincoln and other Kewaunee County townships make the county a special case.
“I am open to legislative action if it is determined necessary for our region,” said State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay.
Speaking at a presentation last month former Wisconsin Natural Resources Secretary George Meyer said that as a farm boy, he is not opposed to CAFOs, but the CAFOs in Kewaunee County are being built in “the wrong place.”
In an effort to address some of the groundwater issues particular to the county, the DNR has formed work groups comprised of county officials, environmental groups, concerned citizens, DNR, Environmental Protection Agency and other representatives. The groups began meeting in August and Jodi Parins, a member of the group, said that she feels that there is “positive movement.”
“In their own words, they (the DNR) recognize that current practices and policies ‘are not working,'” she said. “I am hopeful that with everyone working together – citizens, farmers, conservationists, local government and agencies – real and effective change can occur.”
Town of Lincoln opponents will be determining what steps, if any, they will be taking now that the expansion has been approved. The state requires CAFOs to apply for five-year permits. The farms must submit permits to show how they intend to deal with manure without polluting water. Other factors such as smell, noise, traffic, dust, etc., are not addressed by the permits.
Environmental groups like Kewaunee Cares continue to oppose CAFOS in the county. They say that the “factory farms” produce so much waste in one place that it exceeds the land’s ability to absorb it.
Noxious gas emissions from manure holding tanks and lagoons can cause breathing problems, headaches, skin rashes and neurological problems and that the facilities are overcrowded and stressful to animals, the group claims.
In addition, they says the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms can reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics for humans, and the feed used for these livestock increases the risk of animal and human illnesses.
Kinnard says that the approval of his farm’s permit is “a victory for Wisconsin farmers.”
But Cochart said that the large CAFOS are contributing to the oversupply of milk, which has caused prices to drop making it harder for the small dairy farmer to stay in business.
Lynn Utesch, a Kewaunee County farmer and a spokesperson for Kewaunee Cares, says that “it is tragic that Town of Lincoln residents will not be safeguarded by the provisions put forth in Judge Boldt’s decision.”
“We will continue to try to be the environmentalists everyone thinks we aren’t,” said Rodney Kinnard.
Harbaugh said the petitioners have 30 days following the Sept. 11 decision to decide if they will file an appeal.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Lincoln residents, Kinnard battle over expansion