For decades, Reicks View Farms has been raising lots and lots of hogs in Iowa. Reicks hopes to expand into northern Wisconsin and raise 26,000 hogs in Bayfield County.
The number of hogs qualifies the proposed farm, called Badgerfood, as a CAFO, or a confined animal feeding operation. It would be the first in the Lake Superior basin.
After a groundswell of concern, the Wisconsin DNR is conducting a comprehensive environmental impact study into the proposed operation.
UW Extension specialist Cathy Techtmann has spent a lot of time on Fish Creek. The proposed CAFO would sit eight miles upstream from where the river meets Chequamegon Bay, and Lake Superior beyond.
Techtmann recently maneuvered a small bevy of visiting journalists aboard kayaks onto Fish Creek.
“We are right here where the yellow circle is. The freshwater estuary is here and I call it the mixing bowl," Techtmann says.
We bob where the creek meets the bay, beneath a buzzing highway.
She points out a Great Blue Heron and says the bird is indigenous to the area.
“It’s a very sheltered environment, so it’s a perfect area for birds for nesting, for stopover in the fall and spring time. It’s also a significant fisheries and hatchery for fish of the Western Great Lakes, for white suckers,” she says.
Although native fish and birds are present, Randy Lehr says concern hovers about the health of Fish Creek and its influence on the south shore of Lake Superior.
Lehr, an environmental science professor at nearby Northland College, says no one yet knows how a CAFO might impact the ecosystem.
“There’s maybe a question of bacteria. There are sometime beach closures in Chequamegon Bay driven by E.coli; confined animal feeding operations are a possible sources of that; but phosphorus is the big question,” he says. Phosphorous is found in manure and fertilizers, and high levels contribute to algae bloom and fish kills.
Lehr says scientists are just beginning to study Chequamegon Bay’s unique hydrology.
But both he and the EPA have detected high levels of phosphorus in Fish Creek – the stream closest to the proposed hog CAFO.
Lehr says a contributing factor has been the commercial logging that took place there dating back to the late 1800s.
“Most of northern Wisconsin – 80 to 90 percent of it – was treeless for a significant period of time. When that happens on the landscape, when you see large-scale vegetation removal, the streams change in response. They actually dig bigger channels, they imbed themselves; they become more prone to erosion,” he says.
Lehr says when heavy rains hit, sediment plumes into the bay.
“The Chequamegon Bay area is likely one of if not the most susceptible place in Lake Superior, if not a broader region, to climate change impacts,” he says.
Third generation Bayfield County farmer Clay Burditt supports the proposed hog CAFO.
“Fish Creek, if we’re going to go down that road, has problems, but it’s not due to agriculture as much as logging and other scenarios in the past,” he says.
Burditt says it’ll help keep farming alive in the region. “Farming is dying, we probably have half the number of farms we had twenty years ago, if that,” he says.
Burditt believes his way of life is under attack.
“You guys keyhole as CAFO or factory farms or anything of that nature is just not right. It’s modern agriculture and the fact that we’ve progressed to a point where we can do more production with less effort,” he says.
The CAFO applicant has hired Bayfield County resident John Thomas to manage its crops.
The plan is designed to handle 6.8 million gallons of manure annually, storing and then strategically applying to the land.
“They went through and they found all waterways, all wells, creeks – anywhere water moves. There’s different regulations for a ditch in the field, for bigger waterways, for creeks. All of those have different setbacks and different plans for how you can do it,” Thomas says.
While Thomas and local farmer Clay Burditt trust Badgerwood, Burditt is less confident that the gulf the project has opened between neighbors can be mended.
“It drove a spike through the community and it hasn’t healed yet, I don’t think it will heal,” Burditt says.