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Big dairy plans upset many in Lafayette Co.
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DARLINGTON - A new large-scale farm may be built in Lafayette County by farmers already invested in the area, but opponents of the plan are concerned the impact the operation could have on the environment.

On Monday, 52 people crowded into the downstairs community room of Town Bank in Darlington to learn more about a proposed dairy farm in the Township of Seymour that would host 4,150 cows and employ 28 workers. The farm, called Oak Ridge Dairy Farm, is proposed by farmers Jim DiGangi and Katie Martin, a married couple who have owned and operated Darlington Ridge Dairy since 2008 in the Town of Seymour. The new facility would have double the number of cows DiGangi currently milks, and will be a separate legal entity from their original farm under the name Oak Ridge Dairy Farm LLC. However, employees may be interchanged among the two Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) due to their close proximity; Oak Ridge is slated to be built adjacent from Darlington Ridge Dairy along Saint Peters Road and Rowseville Road.

During their presentation, DiGangi and Martin outlined how much they love farming. Martin is originally from Bagley and is a sixth-generation farmer. DiGangi, raised in upstate New York, is the third generation of his family to farm.

"We do this for future generations," Martin said. "We're proud to dairy farm, and we're proud to be a part of this industry."

Oak Ridge Dairy hopes to begin building this spring, and to begin milking in all buildings by fall. Building plans include a 20-row freestall barn, sand separator, feed storage area and two double-lined manure storage basins. These will be built on roughly 92 acres.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hosted the hearing to gauge public comment on the proposed project. While engineers from Outland Design LLC, an agricultural engineering firm based in Madison, outlined the safeguards that planners have designed, some residents did not see the merit in a CAFO contributing 50.5 million gallons of manure to the soil.

DNR Wastewater Engineer Mark Cain explained the DNR's permitting process. The proposed dairy has already submitted a nutrient management plan deemed adequate; the 5-year plan indicates how manure will be spread. Cain noted that although Darlington Ridge Dairy's 5-year permit had recently expired, it was applied for correctly. However, because of a lack of staff, the DNR had not worked with the paperwork yet, echoing a concern by those opposed to large-scale farming facilities due to a lack of DNR staff to oversee CAFOs.

The hearing garnered 22 public comments, each limited to three minutes.

Kriss Marion, an organic farmer, spoke as president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union chapter covering Lafayette, Green and Rock counties. Marion said she has seen a lack of transparency from Oak Ridge Dairy and said that could limit who is held responsible if an issue occurs. She added anecdotal experiences in which she spent weeks waiting for information she had requested from the DNR.

"I think a lot of us are curious about the owners of the two farms," Marion said. "It is important we do remember that this is about people, and we are talking about people who want to protect their water."

Jen Riemer, a neighbor to proposed CAFO Pinnacle Dairy in the Township of Sylvester in Green County, spoke for Bethany Storm. Storm, a Green County resident and a biologist, hastened caution in favor of protecting groundwater. Storm had written of Fennimore, where a 2-mile-long manure spill originating of the large-scale Misty Morning Dairy killed dozens of fish in Grant County. Storm specifically said the groundwater cannot be adequately protected because of the condition of the soil in the area.

Others spoke in favor of the dairy. Gretchen Kamps delivered an impassioned 3-page speech about her neighbors, Darlington Ridge Dairy, and how the owners are invested in the area.

"Somehow people have assimilated that a large farm can't actually be owned by a family, but rather that they're some sort of three-headed monster that's coming in to suck the life out of a community, take all the water, take all the resources and when they dry up, just pick up and leave," Kamps said. "Jim and Katie are dairy farmers. When you talk to them, that's what they talk about."

Kamps included stories of neighborly actions taken by the couple and pointed to them as people simply looking to expand upon their success to produce more dairy products. Other neighbors, such as Joe Rikkers, a neighbor and a multi-generational farmer, rallied against the idea that a farm operators who have invested time and energy into the soil would do anything to endanger their own environment.

Barbara Smith of Argyle called on landowners not to "fall into the trap of believing that big is good, and bigger is better," while Lena veterinarian Jim Hastings stood to share that he had been offended by the term "factory farm" being applied to caring farmers who have simply had to adapt to a changing world.

Cain said a decision on Oak Ridge Dairy should be made by June 1.