CounterPunch  [Printer-friendly version]
November 1, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In Winona, Minnesota, the local Chamber of
Commerce was very much in favor of expanded hog "production" for
"jobs". They discounted the arguments of the organic inspector --
including the idea of the precautionary principle. They urged the
citizens to only consider the animal confinement operation as a
source of beneficial fertilizer. As for those incredibly noxious
fumes, well that would be just a small price for prosperity.]

By Mike Knapp

Southeastern Minnesota is beautiful country, with rolling hills along
the Mississippi River. The largest city in the area is Winona, which
has a population of about 30,000 with two universities and a technical
college. Spreading out west of the river are hundreds of farms, an
increasing number of which are organic.

Agribusiness interests have much bigger plans for the area. Throughout
the decade, there has been a steady stream of farmers who wish to
expand their livestock operations. In 2001, under pressure from such
forces to maximize production, the Winona County Commissioners
increased the number of animals routinely permitted on a farm to a
limit of 1500 animal units -- which is equivalent to either 1100 dairy
cows or 5000 swine. The County Board may still deny a Conditional Use
Permit for operations below this limit, but its decision must be based
on evidence and specific, science-based reasoning.

The size of farms and their stewardship of the land became a major
issue of debate in Winona County. Many people favored smaller farms
and organic agriculture. But the Minnesota Legislature authorized
state assistance to counties who embrace industrial-scale agriculture.
Administered by the Department of Agriculture, the effort was
deceptively called the Livestock Friendly Counties Program. Most
prominently, the program only assists counties that have no limit to
the allowable size of livestock feedlots. In 2004, the legislature
even considered a bill that would entirely remove local permitting
authority over feedlots. The measure failed, but the battle continued.

Dwayne Voegeli burst on the scene in 2002 as a Green candidate for the
Winona County Commission. Voegeli had a background as a social studies
teacher at the local high school. He was endorsed by the Winona County
Green Party and widely praised in the two local newspapers as a man
who valued both ecology and democracy. His public endorsements
included letters from Kevin Rafferty, Julie Prondzinski, Clay and
Cherisa Templeton, Richie Swanson, Joyce Ford, Lorraine Redig, Dean
Lanz, Michael Sersch, Marci Hitz, Betty Darby, Monica De Grazia, Sarah
Dixen, and Jenny Shanahan.

During his campaign for office, Voegeli himself made a number of
statements that seemed to offer opposition to factory farms. Just
before the primary, Voegeli was interviewed by the Winona Daily News,
and according to the reporter he was "concerned about wells being
contaminated with nitrates" and said that he "favors the county
controlling large feed lots." He offered similar views just before the
general election, when the same reporter wrote, "Being the fourth
generation raised on a Wisconsin farm, Voegeli wants to fight
pollution while supporting family farms."

Three years later, something had changed.

In 2005, Sauer Family Farms petitioned Winona County for a permit to
increase the number of hogs raised on their farm near Lewiston. Chris
Sauer and his brother, Jason already had one of the largest livestock
farms in the county, with 1,500 hogs split between two locations. But
that wasn't enough for them. They wanted to consolidate and expand
their operation -- increasing it to 2,100 hogs on one farm. The crux
of the proposal would be a giant concrete pit, under two hog barns,
that would hold almost one million gallons of manure.

Sauer argued that the proposal would increase the benefits of natural
fertilizer for their 1,700 acres of row crops. He explained, "We're
only trying to be more efficient." Kay Peterson countered that
"efficiency" was not necessarily a virtue. She pointed to the folly of
efficiently concentrating a million gallons of manure on land right
above a trout stream.

Other neighbors of the Sauer farm also voiced strong objection to the
proposal. At a four-hour public hearing described as "contentious" by
the reporter for the Winona Daily News, Jim Gurley challenged the
notion that the scale of the Sauer Family Farm fit the character of
the surrounding countryside. Gurley said, "He may call it a family
farm, but the numbers make it an industrial operation."

Jim Riddle, an organic inspector and the immediate past chairman of
the USDA's National Organic Standards Board, pointed out that the hogs
were being raised for Tyson Foods, Inc. -- a corporation that proudly
identifies itself as the "world's largest processor and marketer of
chicken, beef, and pork, the second-largest food company in the
Fortune 500, and a member of the S&P 500." The goal of Tyson's
Horizontal Integration is to make the corporation the "largest
provider of protein products on the planet." Riddle argued that if the
Sauer Conditional Use Permit were approved, it would set a precedent
for land use in Winona County.

The Winona newspapers published passionate letters and a guest
editorial about the ecological risk and the injustice of supporting
agribusiness at the expense of the community. The debate raged for
weeks. The position of the local Chamber of Commerce was that the
surrounding community should have no right to limit the size of an
industrial operation on private land. The editorial board of the
Winona Daily News argued that bigger farms were necessary and not a
matter of choice.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Voegeli wrote a warm, fuzzy letter about how
great it was for people to "share their thoughts" in public debate. He
was particularly impressed by how poised and articulate the president
of the local Chamber of Commerce was. He wrote, "Last night's meeting
was a great day for local democracy in Winona County."

Two weeks later, Dwayne Voegeli cast the deciding vote in favor of the
feedlot. He was the only member of the Green Party among the five
members of the commission. The newspaper reported:

The permit was approved on the swing vote of Commissioner Dwayne
Voegeli .

Commissioners Duane Bell and Jerry Heim voted against the permit. Bell
cited health concerns and said he has never received so many calls on
an issue. Heim said he had received calls "running 10 to one against."
But as downwinder Susan Sommers noted a few days later, the majority
on the County Board decided that supporting large business growth was
more important than ecology or human health. Commissioner Voegeli
tried to cover his tracks with the promise of "electrostatic
biocurtain" mitigation technology -- one of the conditions of approval
that were described in the official proceedings of the meeting.
Neighbors of the feedlot later found such promises easy to ridicule
when their backyard air still smelled like hog farts.

In stark contrast, the editorial board of the Winona Daily News
specifically praised Voegeli for his "politically courageous" support
for the fetid feedlot and mammoth manure pit:

It is a good decision, and we have Commissioner Dwayne Voegeli to
thank for it .

In his life away from the county board, Voegeli is a teacher, but that
Tuesday morning he taught a civics lesson that those who serve at all
levels of government would do well to attend to.

Well done, Dwayne.

The social studies teacher had developed some important friends, and
the party had only just begun.

* * *

Eight months later, Smith Family Farms sought to expand part of their
agribusiness that extends across 37 different farms in three counties,
totaling more than 6,000 acres. They raise 4,000 hogs and 200 dairy
cows in concentrated warehouses, similar to other factory farms. They
applied for a permit to increase one particular feedlot to 2,400 hogs
in Wiscoy Township. The proposal was for two hog barns and two manure
pits -- each holding 500,000 gallons.

Before the Winona County Planning and Zoning Commission had considered
the permit, 41 citizens of Wiscoy Township unanimously adopted a
resolution in opposition to the feedlot at their annual township
meeting in March. The theme of the resolution was the substantial risk
of the proposed operation to the health of nearby residents and to the
surrounding environment. Another resolution was also unanimously
passed to consider a temporary moratorium on all permits for new or
expanded "confinement operations with more than 300 animal units."

A week later, Jim Riddle provided both Winona newspapers with a
detailed argument against the conditional use permit. His first point
was that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already found
excess fecal coliform bacteria in nearby Money Creek. Fecal coliform
itself is not pathogenic, but it is an indicator species for the
presence of dangerous pathogens that cause diseases such as typhoid
fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis or dysentery.

Riddle explained that if the county were to authorize new sources of
animal waste into a watershed that was already identified as polluted,
that would be a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Furthermore,
Money Creek happens to be a designated trout stream, according to the
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The potential of chronic
leaks or catastrophic spills of hog manure would put this fish habitat
into further jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the local Chamber of Commerce was very much in favor of
expanded hog "production" for "jobs". They discounted the arguments of
the organic inspector -- including the idea of the precautionary
principle. They urged the citizens to only consider the animal
confinement operation as a source of beneficial fertilizer. As for
those incredibly noxious fumes, well that would be just a small price
for prosperity.

In the end, the decision came down to the five people on the county
commission. Two were quickly against the application, while two were
strongly in favor of it. Only the chairman of the committee was
undecided. He publicly waffled and delayed. The committee met two
extra times before they finally decided.

Once again, Dwayne Voegeli, the representative of the Green Party cast
the deciding vote in favor of a larger lagoon of manure.

Three months later, Voegeli supported a third feedlot. This time it
was for 1300 dairy cows, with a pit holding 5.7 million gallons of
manure. Despite its enormity, there was little vocal opposition to the
feedlot, and the vote on the commission was unanimous. Voegeli joked,
"I guess we just like cows more than pigs." Perhaps the citizens had
been metaphorically beaten into submission by the futility of trying
to reason with a majority of their elected representatives --
including the one with the "Green" label.

Writing for the antithesis of green ideology, the President of the
Winona Chamber of Commerce chirped, "Good call Commissioner!"


Mike Knapp lives in Minnesota. He can be reached through his website: