In a win for the people and the land of southeastern Minnesota’s Winona County, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has declined to take up an appeal case that was brought forward by a large dairy attempting to expand well beyond an existing animal unit cap. This comes after years of neighbor-to-neighbor action and public engagement by Land Stewardship Project members and other people in Winona County in support of the current animal unit cap, which was put in place to protect the communities, as well as the land, water, and air, that everyone relies on.
At issue is Daley Farm’s attempt to add roughly 3,000 animals to its existing operation, which would put the operation at around 6,000 animal units, almost four times the county’s animal unit cap of 1,500 animal units. That cap, which was put in place in 1998, is equivalent to 1,071 dairy cows, 5,000 market hogs, and 1,500 beef cows/steers; the overwhelming majority of livestock operations in Winona County and across Minnesota are well below this limit, meaning this cap readily allows for a family farm-based system of livestock agriculture in Winona County. Such a cap is particularly important in a region like southeastern Minnesota, where groundwater is vulnerable to contamination as a result of the porous karst geology that predominates.
In 2019, the animal unit cap was challenged by Daley Farm’s lawyers after the Winona County Board of Adjustment ruled that the proposed expansion could not move forward because it would exceed the cap. The expanded facility would use 92 million gallons of the area’s groundwater per year and produce 46 million gallons of manure and wastewater. For context, the nearby town of Lewiston (pop. 1,506) uses 33 million gallons of water annually. And the operation is in a region where tests have shown wells with nitrate levels nearing or above the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum allowable nitrate level of 10 milligrams per liter.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals decision keeps with a long legal tradition in Minnesota of giving regulatory favor to the local governing body and the people who have the most at stake. What comes next for the people of Winona County is another round of community debate as the Board of Adjustment reconsiders allowing Daley Farms to circumvent the animal unit cap. The Board is scheduled to consider the Daley situation in December.
Even after being denied an exception to the county animal unit cap rule — called a “variance” — by the local community, and after the courts have decided that the local decision is final, Daley Farm can continue to put forward a request for a variance for the same project and start the process over again. During the past two years, neighbors to the proposed expansion, along with other folks in Winona County, have repeatedly made it clear such a large expansion is not welcome in their community. They have testified at public meetings, submitted detailed evidence to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and submitted letters-to-the-editor.
Unfortunately, the owners of Daley Farm say they will continue to push for the variance. This unprecedented expansion is seen as a bellwether by large agribusiness interests within Minnesota, which are pushing for ever more expansion of mega-sized Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) at the expense of small and moderate-sized family farms. As a result, Daley Farm has had significant resources backing up their expansion efforts, including a law firm that serves major agribusiness clients. Rather than follow the law, Daley Farm is once again attempting to force the law to follow it.
It should be made clear that this expansion doesn’t just violate what’s considered a sensible animal unit limitation in Winona County. Several other southeastern Minnesota counties — Freeborn, Fillmore, Dodge, and Faribault — also limit the size of livestock operations. Local governments across the region are taking serious steps toward protecting groundwater and the viability of small to moderate-sized livestock farms. As LSP farmer-members in the region have been proving for decades, concentrating thousands of animals in CAFOs is not the future of agriculture; there are ways to profitably raise livestock while keeping our communities and the land viable and healthy.
The people of Winona County made it clear in 1998 when the animal unit cap was instituted and in 2019 when the original request for a variance was denied that the protection of the area’s water, air, and small to mid-sized farms are more important values to the community than the profits of one mega-operation, or the advancement of an unsustainable model of agriculture that has already decimated numerous other communities across the country. Those community values have not changed in the two years since the Board of Adjustment last weighed in on this proposed expansion.
That was made apparent earlier this fall when LSP member-leaders in Winona County brought together other members of the community to talk about Daley Farm’s continued efforts to overturn those community values and how local people can ensure that the county animal unit cap is enforced. The folks who pulled together for this meeting shared a resolve to protect their community and be in communication with their neighbors about the importance of the county animal unit cap and the values that are behind it.
LSP is looking forward to watching this renewed community conversation unfold and is confident that the people of Winona County will, yet again, make their voices heard. Local government and the courts have listened and acted accordingly. It’s time the owners of Daley Farm and other boosters of the mega-dairy model got the message as well.
LSP organizer Matthew Sheets works on factory farm and livestock concentration issues. He can be reached via e-mail or at 612-767-9709.