Big Cow Factory on the Prairie

In Swift County, residents cry foul over a mega dairy and the state agency that can't say no

Last year, a coalition of environmentalists and small farmers successfully beat back a legislative proposal that would have restricted the authority of townships and counties to write their own rules governing feedlots; it was a major, if somewhat rare, victory for small operators. Ironically, in the case of Swift County, the success in that battle doesn't seem likely to count for much. That's because the Swift County Board rejected the main recommendations from a citizen's task force that pushed for a countywide ordinance prohibiting operations on the scale of East Dublin Dairy.

Brian Wojtalkawicz, an attorney from Swift County who served on the task force, says the task force proposed bigger setbacks and wanted to cap the size of feedlot herds to 2,000 animal units. (Under MPCA rules, a dairy cow weighing 1,000 pounds equals 1.4 animal units.) "I haven't seen any effort by a single county board member to look closely at these operations and what their neighbors go through," Wojtalkawicz says. "But I have seen them make faces, like anyone who objects is a hyper-environmental wacko."

While the Swift County Board has not made a final determination on the East Dublin Dairy, opponents of the project are uniform in their belief that the board will approve the project in early February. That's unfortunate, says State Rep. Aaron Peterson, because most of his constituents are against the proposal. And, he adds, they are not concerned solely with environmental threats and odor. They are also worried about structural changes to the dairy industry that will mirror what has already occurred in the much more consolidated poultry and swine sectors. Already, he notes, many creameries pay a "volume premium" to the large dairies, effectively putting small operators at a serious competitive disadvantage. "The milk truck is already driving by the small dairy driveways because they don't produce enough," Peterson says.

Pete Kennedy, who grew up on a farm outside Murdock, thinks the social and economic changes wrought by ever-larger animal agricultural operations have already hurt the community. "The farms are getting bigger and the schools are getting smaller," Kennedy notes. And what of additional jobs brought by big operations like East Dublin? "These aren't the sort of jobs where you can buy a house or be a part of the community," he says. "They are very low-wage, and most of them will go to migrant laborers."

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