June 14, 2022 at 3:03 p.m.
Olson milks 40 cows on his farm in Polk County’s Clam Falls Township. After 15 years of service on the Polk County Board and serving as the chair for the Polk County Towns Association, he is poised to begin a fourth term with the county board.
Recently, Olson has been in a position to help lead the fight against an anti-animal agriculture movement that has been growing throughout his area.
Proposed large livestock ordinances, which were defeated at the county level, have now filtered down to township governments.
“This has really been a hot-button issue in our area for several years now,” Olson said. “The one thing I have learned is that if you are persistent and you don’t give in, you can win.”
Olson said there is an ongoing effort to enact regulation on farms in Polk and Burnett counties. The effort comes in the wake of a proposed large CAFO hog farm that an Iowa-based company planned to locate in the Burnett County’s Trade Lake Township which borders Polk County.
“Like it or not, 70% of the dairy and beef, over 98% of the pork and over 99% of all the poultry comes from a (concentrated animal feeding operation),” Olson said. “That is just the way that it is. You don’t have to like it; you just have to realize small farms cannot feed an ever-growing population. I don’t have to like Walmart, but I have to realize that they have the right to exist.”
When the rhetoric about limiting large-scale animal agriculture in their community started to grow, Olson said many shrugged off the regulation. Slowly, people began to realize the limitation was not only about hogs.
Olson said the movement has bigger underpinnings.
“Their goal is they still want my little red barn with the cows out on the pasture,” Olson said. “But, I don’t feed the world. There are only 30,000 dairy farms left in the United States. I have done the math. On average, we all feed 11,000 people with dairy products. I milk 40 cows. I don’t feed 11,000 people.”
What Olson has learned through his experiences navigating the protection of animal agriculture has given him a new view on how the actions taken by state-wide lobbying groups can affect what happens on the local level in terms of ordinance creation.
“They are telling us the legislation says one thing, but it actually says something completely different, which is very, very troubling,” Olson said.
Olson pointed to discussion at a recent Dairy Business Association meeting held in Amery where he heard conflicting interpretations of collaborative language in legislation, citing 2021 ACT 223 Section 1 36.25(6)(f) as saying, “The position (hydrogeologist) shall focus on developing groundwater resource information primarily at county or local scales and assisting state and local governments, industries, and the public in interpreting and using this information.”
“A joint press release from DBA, Clean Wisconsin, The Nature Conservancy and Wisconsin Land and Water specifically said, ‘A new hydrogeologist position at the (University of Wisconsin)-Madison Division of Extension to develop groundwater resource information, such as soil depth-to-bedrock maps that help farmers tailor cropping practices,’” Olson said. “Act 223 is a great thing, with the exception of that one thing; but that one thing has the potential to haunt agriculture for years and years to come as a tool used against ag. So, was it a good thing? Why do we need to partner with these anti-ag environmental groups? Why can’t our ag groups partner together for things that are good? Looking at every bill and asking, ‘What do the antis want in this bill?’ Then we need to remove it. We shouldn’t be tied to legislation that they are, because ultimately it is bad for agriculture.”
Olson said that while there is always a time and place for compromise in government, the defense of agriculture is neither.
“I was told early on at the county to just give them something and they will go away,” Olson said. “I will give them nothing because they won’t go away. That is my issue with our ag lobbying groups being tied in with these other environmental groups. You think by giving them something, you are winning. But they are in this for the long haul. Thinking you can work with groups whose only intent is to destroy your business is, to me, the definition of insanity.”
Olson pointed to the major agriculture advocacy groups’ stances on climate change as an area where they attempt to appease dissenters.
“The statewide dairy advocacy groups’ climate change policies are to prioritize managed grazing and promote regenerative agriculture,” Olson said. “I’m going to think that most people that belong to a group like DBA are not managed grazers, like I am. But if you really understand what regenerative agriculture is, practices like using animal waste as fertilizer to lower the use of commercial fertilizer and cover crops; then you understand there is no bigger user of regenerative agriculture than large livestock producers. They need to make that known.”
For Olson, the fight to derail the proposed anti-agriculture ordinances at the county level would have been an easier one to win had the state’s pro-agriculture groups walked in and presented a large, unified presence.
“This would have ended much sooner than it did if everyone had known that agriculture was there,” Olson said. “Not every organization needs to show up at every meeting, but if those organizations banded together with a unified voice, that voice carries huge. The other side shows up, and they are loud. We need to be there too.”
As a dairy farmer milking 40 cows, Olson’s dedication to this cause might seem odd on the surface.
“I get asked routinely why I’m fighting the battle for CAFOs. I’m not,” Olson said. “I’m fighting the battle for agriculture, because every time they are going to peel back a layer. Look at Trade Lake (Township), the layer is no longer 1,000 animal units; it’s 500. If that language moves into Polk County, we will lose probably half our dairy farms, if not more. They will go out of business if they have to meet those types of strict guidelines. There is no way to financially do it. It doesn’t stop there either; at one point, it was suggested in Burnett County that 25 animals be considered a CAFO. These groups truly want our demise. Remember, farmers feed the world. Activists feed no one.”
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