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After two manure spills, neighbors worried about Wild Rose Dairy expansion in La Farge

A large dairy farm in La Farge, Wisconsin, has plans to expand operations, causing concern for its neighbors who have been downstream from two manure spills from the farm in the last three years.

Wild Rose Dairy, located on Buckeye Ridge just outside the rural southwestern Wisconsin town, has applied for a permit with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to add nearly 1,000 animals to its farm and triple its waste- storage facility, making it capable of holding about 30 million gallons of waste.

In 2017 and 2019, Wild Rose Dairy experienced leaks that caused manure to spill into a nearby creek, causing about 2,000 fish to die and impact the greater ecosystem.

Both spills were caused by a leak in a manure-transfer hose operated by an independent contractor from the farm, and was running manure from the farm on the hilltop to fields in the valley, passing the water source on its way.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is still investigating the two leaks, though the farm said its contractor has since remedied any possibility of another leak by removing the hoses from any surface bodies of water.

But a separate issue is causing the farm to expand its operations, which neighbors are concerned will compromise the prevention of further environmental and social impacts.

Between a rock and a hard place

Wild Rose Dairy was first started in 1997 as a conglomerate of local farmers looking for more space for their livestock. It sits atop Buckeye Ridge, one of several hilltops and ridges that surround the Kickapoo River Valley and its smaller tributary waters, and small rural towns of the Driftless Region, such as La Farge.

For almost two decades, the farm passed permit inspections on operating as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, which allows it to hold a certain amount of livestock at high-density, and release its waste a certain way.

But in 2015, the DNR found that major upgrades were needed on the farm, including a new barn, feed storage and manure-storage facilities, and run-off system.

“Bottom line is, we were looking at several million dollars of change to a system that had already passed three permit inspections,” said David Abt, co-owner of Wild Rose. “Well, the only way to pay for those changes is with milk.”

To pay for the state-mandated changes, the farm decided to increase its operations, with plans to add 1,028 animal units, or 838 cows, which would roughly double the amount of waste, the DNR predicting that by 2021, the farm would produce nearly 24 million gallons of manure and processed wastewater and 1,242 tons of solid waste.

To account for the increase in animal waste, the farm would upgrade its waste storage facilities, giving it the capacity to hold about 30 million gallons of liquid waste and the capability to store the waste for up to 400 days.

Upgrades to its feed and run-off systems would also, according to the permit, withhold any runoff in the event of a 25-year, 24-hour rain event, which would produce 5-6 inches of rain in a single day.

“I think that they’re trying to do better than they have in the past. They’re making the steps in the right direction,” said Eric Struck with the DNR.

A changing climate

But neighbors to the rural CAFO said that increasing the size of the farm is a recipe for disaster.

“I’m concerned about whether Wild Rose can safely operate and manage an increased herd,” said Joan Peterson, a neighbor who lives in a valley below the farm on Green Hollow Road.

“If they’re having these problems with their operations with the current size herd,” she said, “why do we think that somehow they’ll be able to manage even more livestock without problems? It doesn’t make sense to me, I guess.”

The two previous manure spills killed off fish downstream from the farm, but neighbors say another one could contaminate private wells and clogging and damage the area’s narrow, curvy, rural roads with more farm equipment, on top of more wildlife damage.

“We were very concerned and alarmed with the first spill, because it killed so many fish,” Peterson said. “I actually did go and get our well tested, and luckily it was OK.”

According to the DNR, about one quarter of Wisconsinites get their drinking water from more than 800,000 private wells. The two Wild Rose manure spills showed no evidence of well contamination.

“Something’s going to break down, and once the groundwater is contaminated, it is done. It is contaminated forever,” said Mark Katz, who also lives on Green Hollow Road with his wife, Janet Kruk. He said he and almost all of his neighbors who live outside of town use a private well for water.

And much like the rest of the globe, the Driftless region has been experiencing a changing climate. With an increase in heavy rainfalls each year and a unique geological structure, residents are worried that the farm’s improvement plan does not account for the adapting climate enough.

“It’s such an inappropriate site for a large livestock operation. There’s evidence that it’s sited over karst geology. It has streams that drain to the east and the west,” Peterson said. “And the terrain is really hilly and difficult. It’s hard to imagine a worse location for a big livestock operation, with not just a risk, but demonstrated manure spills.”

“The amount of manure is just astronomical. And we all know how often the La Farge area, the Kickapoo River can flood. And that amount of manure sitting on top of a narrow ridge, a rocky, narrow ridge, is a recipe for disaster, I feel. And it’s just dumb luck that there hasn’t been a worse disaster,” said Jean Beck, who lives a few miles from Wild Rose.

The farm’s expansion would allow it to withstand up to six inches of rain in a single day, but heavy rainfalls are becoming more common for the region, which has experienced five major flooding events in just more than a decade, the most recent in 2018, which brought more than 12 inches of rain in a single day for some parts of the valley.

And there is evidence that parts of the region are sitting on top of karst geology, meaning its bedrock is fractured and creates underground streams that can carry pollutants directly into an area’s groundwater.

But Wild Rose said it is working to address these issues by injecting manure directly into the soil and no longer running transfer hoses through the valleys and waterways.

And it’s confident that this expansion will help address more concerns, allowing the dairy to store more waste for longer and avoid spreading it on fields during wetter weather. The DNR will also be on the site often, testing the soil and nutrients on the farm to make sure conditions are safe.

“If it overflows these things, you better get an ark,” Abt said, confident in the new storage space.

Future of ‘America’s Dairyland’

Some neighbors said they’re nostalgic for family farms that once scattered “America’s Dairyland” — farms that are now thinning out because of a changing dairy industry, which they think large operations like Wild Rose Dairy are contributing to.

“We’re not anti-farmer. We live here and we understand how important farming is to the economy of our area,” Katz said.

“And I know that this is the route that farming is taking, but I still believe in a family farm,” he said. “But this is not what one might think of as a farm. This is an industrial operation, and I think it’s too big, and I think it’s located in a place that is dangerous to the quality of life that has kept so many of us here.”

“It’s not like there’s a need for this. But I feel like there is a greed for it,” Beck said of the trend of larger farms.

“And by taking over hundreds and hundreds of acres in their operations,” she said, “there won’t be those small farmers here. It’ll just be one, huge operation, that will always be fragile.”

Abt, who is a fourth-generation farmer, said that Wild Rose has to adapt with the changing industry to stay afloat.

“I’m sorry that makes (small farms) obsolete, but that’s the world we live in,” Abt said, saying that his increase in herd is not a “galactic increase,” and is the average size for most modern, competitive farms.

What’s next?

The DNR will host a public hearing at 2 p.m. Oct. 13 to hear from neighbors of Wild Rose Dairy before deciding on the permit.

If approved, the farm would be on a monitoring schedule with the DNR for regular testing and site inspections, and would need to submit an emergency response plan.

Despite concerns about future pollution events, the owners of Wild Rose Dairy hope the changes can help remedy past mistakes and make it sustainable for the future.

“It’s the opposite,” Abt said of concerns that the growing farm will be harder to manage. “It’s going to make it easier.”

The 68-year-old, who is also a lawyer, said the work he’s putting in to improve the farm will benefit the next generation of farmers more than him.

“I want to explain to people,” he said, “that I am not even getting anything out of this, because of the bad farming economy and the expense we’ve had here.”

Neighbors are just as worried about the future as the area, and state, grapple with the relationship between farming and climate change.

“We’re happy here. We’ve made a life here. We’ve raised — now we have three generations, four generations in the area, living here,” said Katz, “and we would hate to see it change significantly with having the water be destroyed.”

“So that a few people can make a profit,” his wife, Kruk, added.

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Amtrak reducing long-distance trains to three days a week despite promising returns

Amtrak will cut down on daily long-distance trains and transition to a tri-weekly format through southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin by mid-October, despite the fact the daily trains are the company’s current crutch for revenue.

Since March and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in numerous businesses suffering greatly, Amtrak’s ridership has fallen by 95%, according to All Aboard Minnesota and All Aboard Wisconsin.

Due to this drop in ridership, the company’s projected revenue for 2021 has gone down by 50%.

To remedy this, Amtrak is not only cutting the number of days it runs long-distance trains, but also cutting its workforce by 20%, which it estimates will save $213 million in costs and $500 million in cost savings.

In a recent congressional hearing, Amtrak said that in order to maintain its system as it is now — with long-distance trains and little to no layoffs — it would need $4.9 billion in additional revenue.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn even said that if Congress were to provide additional funding and instructed it to maintain its system as it is now, it would rescind the furloughs and service cuts.

Interestingly, Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, says Amtrak’s long-distance trains aren’t suffering as much compared to state-supported and the Northeast Corridor routes.

“When you analyze what’s happened to Amtrak during the COVID period, since March when ridership really collapsed, it is clear that the long-distance trains are holding up much better in terms of a ridership perspective and a revenue perspective,” Nelson said. “ We don’t believe that this decision to cut the long-distance trains is a wise one based off how they’ve performed in the pandemic period.”

Nelson said 45% of the revenue Amtrak has earned since March has come from the national, long-distance routes, which is higher than the 21% earned last year.

While the revenue from the long-distance trains is down 64% from last year, the other two options that Amtrak offers are down by 90%.

In fact, Nelson pointed out, long-distance trains have risen to earn more than the state-supported and Northeast Corridor trains compared to last year.

“The long-distance trains are clearly holding up,” Nelson said. “It really enforces our belief ... that people depend on these trains. Families with kids, college students (or) people traveling to remote areas of the country... they need these trains to get around.”

When Amtrak goes through with the cuts to its long-distance trains, and if it maintains those cuts for a year, Nelson argued, the loss would be a “bomb” of $3 billion in flyover country, which includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana among others.

This doesn’t just affect Amtrak, either — it also affects the communities it serves, too; fewer trains means fewer travelers coming and investing in the communities in and around Amtrak stations.

It also means there’s the potential for certain long-distance trains going away entirely, which would make connections in Chicago, for example, require up to two days of delays between trains.

“It would be a very severe impact, especially in smaller towns,” Nelson said. “This is not something that is insignificant.”

This isn’t the first time Amtrak has cut down on the number of days it runs long-distance trains, either.

Nona Hill, the president of All Aboard Wisconsin, pointed out that Amtrak adopted a tri-weekly model for their long-distance trains in an effort cut expenses back in 1995.

While there was a 10% reduction in expenses, Amtrak reported a 50% loss in revenue.

“The truth of the matter is on any given schedule, the fewer trains you run, passengers go down more than the percentage of trains that you’re cutting,” Hill said.

Hill and Nelson emphasized how imperative it is for people to contact their U.S. senators and request that they set Amtrak appropriation at the $5 billion relief level.

Both added that the money should be contingent on Amtrak preserving the daily operation of all long-distance trains, in reference to William Flynn saying the company would rescind furloughs and service cuts if they received congressional aid.

“Congress needs to hear from you,” Nelson said. “The long-distance trains are performing well and they’re needed desperately more than ever now. They’re an important resource that we can’t let go away.”

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La Crosse County COVID-19 cases up by 100 Saturday, State sees 2,238 new positives

La Crosse County had a welcome drop in new COVID-19 cases Saturday, with 100 new lab-confirmed positives.

While still in the triple digits, the number is well below Friday’s record-breaking local total of 254 new positives.

The 100 new cases, as reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, show a 45.66% positivity rate Saturday.

This is the fourth day in a row the county has reported at least 100 new cases. During the past seven days, the county has averaged 121.43 new cases per day, a figure that was 44.71 a week ago.

Total confirmed cases are up to 2,475, which grows to 2,618 when including probable cases.

Saturday was the third day in a row with a positivity rate higher than 40%, and the seven- and 14-day rates have increased as a result.

The seven-day rate increased to 41.85%, up from 19.96% a week ago, and the 14-day rate increased to 32.31%, up from 19.62% a week ago.

Total positivity is up to 9.44%, a figure that was still below 7% a week ago, and total deaths remained at two.

On the state level, Wisconsin experienced its second highest day of new coronavirus cases at 2,238. The state’s record high occured Friday, with 2,553 positive test results.

In total, statewide positive cases total 99,562. There have been 1,325,447 negative test results, an increase of 10,189 since yesterday.

Wisconsin hospitalizations due to the coronavirus increased by 50, with 6,619 patients ever hospitalized. An additional three Wisconsinites have died from COVID-19, bringing fatalities to 1,241.

College case updates

UW-La Crosse updated its COVID-19 dashboard to show 51 PCR tests were administered Friday, with 28 — or 54.9% — coming back positive.

The La Crosse County Health Department reminds residents to wear fabric face masks when in public, practice physical distancing and to stay home when possible.

Those with any potential symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, chills, runny nose, congestion, muscle or body aches, cough, tiredness, headache, new loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, are asked to stay home and contact their provider for testing.