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Local News

Small Farm Pollution Can Slip Through the Cracks and Be Hard to Enforce

Credit: iStock

by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner

Dane County instituted an ordinance guiding its enforcement of agricultural standards in 2019. Since then, the county’s land and water resources department (LWRD) has been fighting to improve the conditions on one cattle farm in the small Town of Primrose, southwest of Madison. 

The farm, which as of 2021 held about 80 head of dairy and beef cattle, a dozen horses and a handful of pigs, sits near a trout stream that ultimately runs into the Sugar River. With that number of animals on the property, the vegetation in the pasture is often completely wiped out, leaving deep muck the cows have to stand in and a direct flow of pollution running into the stream. 

For years, residents have complained to the land and water department, and animal control, about the state of the property and the health of its animals. But an obstinate landowner and limited tool belt have caused delay after delay — even as the pollution continues, harming the nearby watershed. 

Much of the state’s clean water activism is focused on massive factory farms located around the state, but those operations come with much stricter regulations and deeper pockets to fix any persistent issues. The Primrose case highlights how smaller farms, when owned by someone unwilling or unable to fix a problem, can harm entire watersheds — even when local conservation departments are working to force the issue. 

“Compliance issues are always complicated and always seem to take time to resolve,” says Amy Piaget, a conservationist for the Land and Water Resource Department. Cows in the trout stream during one of Dane County’s first visits to the property. (Dane County Land and Water Resources Department)

The property, owned by Wayne Aeschbach — who did not respond to a request for comment — was reported to the county as being potentially in violation of the agricultural standards in September of 2019, documents obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner in an open records request show. 

The initial complaints stated that the pasture was overgrazed and cattle were frequently standing in the middle of the stream. In October, a few county land and water employees visited the farm to see the problem for themselves. 

“The Dane County Land & Water Resources Department (LWRD) received a number of complaints regarding the feedlot located at your property in the Town of Primrose,” the department wrote to Aeschbach in an Oct. 16, 2019, letter. “The cattle feedlot has a direct runoff to an unnamed tributary to the Primrose Branch and unlimited livestock access to waters of the state has prevented the maintenance of adequate vegetative cover on the bank of the unnamed tributary.”

After that meeting, Aeschbach agreed to construct a temporary fence to keep the cows out of the stream while plans were made for a more permanent solution. 

“In order to help minimize runoff from the feedlot in the interim, you agreed to install a temporary fence to prevent livestock access to the unnamed tributary to the Primrose Branch,” the department wrote. “The fence shall be a minimum of 20 feet from the edge of the bank of the intermittent stream and installed no later than October 31, 2019.” 

By 2020, the county had determined it was going to require Aeschbach to build a permanent fence 30 feet from the stream and re-seed the stream’s banks to allow the vegetation to grow back. The department also gave Aeschbach until the end of 2022 to implement a number of practices to prevent runoff into the stream. The county, as it does in every agricultural standards case, offered to share the costs of the necessary improvements, records show.

A letter from Aeschbach to the county, obtained by the Examiner, shows that he responded by getting mad at the continued enforcement actions against him. 

“I will NOT tolerate your continued harassment and threats to me and I will take action against you beginning with your supervisor and as high as I need to go,” Aeschbach wrote about the staff member assigned to the case in the June 5, 2020, letter. “You have lied to me, you are completely unorganized and uneducated in your field and you lack people skills and follow through.”

He continued: “I have no trust in you and no respect for you any longer. The county would be better served to remove you from this project and put someone capable in your place and send you off to some needed training.”

Through 2021, Aeschbach continued to push back on the county’s requirements. That December, county employees drove by the farm to see that the temporary fence was gone and there were cows again standing in the stream. Aeschbach said a power outage that occurred while he was out of town allowed the cattle to get out. He told the county that it didn’t make sense to replant the vegetation in December in Wisconsin. The cattle on the property are kept in a feedlot with little to no vegetation. (Dane County Land and Water Resources Department)

Two years into its involvement in the case, the county decided to issue a citation for violating the agricultural standards and handed the case to the Dane County corporation counsel. Throughout 2022, the county has been trying to persuade Aeschbach to implement the same improvements that have been at issue since the case began. 

“If we start an enforcement process, it usually means they’re not in compliance with our county ordinance,” Piaget says.

The department offers planning and technical help in developing solutions, and also offers to share the cost, she adds. 

“All of that is always offered to every landowner we work with, whether it’s a voluntary process or in those cases [where] we have a compliance issue,” Piaget says. “So I think some landowners are receptive to that and some are not. That kind of plays into how quickly we can work through an issue and how quickly we can resolve it.” 

Piaget acknowledges that “the resolution is taking us a while” because the county has not gotten cooperation from the farm.

 “We do have a landowner that’s been challenging to work with,” she says, “and a lot of what we do is trying to educate the landowner or the person we’re working with to explain why we need to do some things, and again, some people are receptive to that and some are not.”

Dane County, aside from the problems in Primrose, has had several agricultural enforcement cases that last for years, records show. The county’s agricultural complaint tracking documents, obtained by the Examiner, show a number of unresolved cases that were initiated in 2019 and 2020. 

“It becomes a difficult thing to ultimately bring some type of enforcement action,” says Adam Voskuil, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.