What's at Stake in the Daley Farms Court Battle in Winona County

For over two years, Land Stewardship Project members in southeastern Minnesota’s Winona County have been fighting for the future of their community. The threat they are faced with is in the form of a massive expansion proposed by Daley Farms, which sits just outside the town of Lewiston.

Daley Farms wants to increase its current operation by almost 3,000 dairy cattle for a total herd size of 4,628. This would make it one of the largest dairy operations in the state. Over 90% of dairy farms in Minnesota are 500 cows or fewer.

This proposed expansion would double the liquid manure and waste water production of this operation to 46 million gallons a year, and require adding a manure basin the size of three football fields at a depth of 16 feet. All this liquid waste would sit on top of sensitive karst geology, which is composed of porous limestone that is highly prone to sinkholes and disappearing springs. This type of geological structure can allow surface pollution to enter the groundwater in a matter of hours.

This dairy expansion would use 92 million gallons of the area’s groundwater annually; the nearby town of Lewiston (pop. 1,506) uses 33.6 million gallons a year. And the operation is surrounded by towns already plagued with nitrate levels nearing or above the maximum allowable nitrate level of 10 mg/L.

By the way, this project is being proposed at a time when mega-dairy overproduction is already putting thousands of farmers out of business every year.

LSP members and other rural residents in the area have made it quite clear that this unprecedented expansion is not welcome in their community. They have showed up at hearings to make their voices heard, submitted comments to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, written letters to their local newspapers, and in general expressed their passionate belief that our water and soil, as well as the viability of small and medium-sized farms, is far more important than advancing the interests of a select few. In short, these people have been civically engaged in having a say about what their community will look like far into the future.

A Troubling Court Decision

That is why the Land Stewardship Project is extremely concerned that last week’s pronouncement by an Olmsted County District Court judge will have a chilling effect on citizen civic engagement in Winona County and beyond. Judge Kevin F. Mark declared that when the Winona County Board of Adjustment ruled against allowing Daley Farms to expand its dairy herd nearly four times beyond the county’s animal unit limit, the decision was “tainted” as a result of connections some board members had to LSP and prior advocacy.

LSP members and staff care deeply about the future of Winona County, and for decades we have worked hard to use any legal, ethical means available to protect the land and communities here. Communicating with members of the community about the threats posed by an unprecedented expansion of the type Daley Farms is proposing is just solid, grassroots organizing, plain and simple.

In rural communities, people who are civically engaged through boards, committees, etc., are usually passionate about many issues, and are likely to be members of other groups that are part of the community, whether it be the Farm Bureau, the local historical society, or the Land Stewardship Project. Being engaged with other groups also helps us make more informed decisions on issues that impact the community. That’s not bias — that’s called community involvement. It’s the basis of what makes our local communities work. Daley Farms would have us believe that somehow this is wrong, not above-board, and that it destroys individual integrity.

What is at Stake

The bottom line is that the lawsuit filed by Daley Farms is a distraction to the reality of the situation: their proposal did not qualify for a variance to the county’s current rules related to the size of livestock operations allowed. In fact, it wasn’t even close. There is clear justification for this denial — concentrating so many cows and all of the liquid manure they produce in one place is a bad idea. This is not about supporting the farming economy or Main Street businesses, it’s about threatening the future of a community all for the sake of a few powerful people and the industry that promotes this kind of agriculture.

This lawsuit is an attempt to distract from the fact that this is an unwanted and destructive project by attacking people who dare question the wisdom of letting an industrialized operation threaten the future of an entire community for generations to come. Given the resources being poured into this lawsuit by Daley Farms, it’s clear that this issue goes beyond one individual operation’s expansion plans. Industrial ag and its backers see the Winona County fight as a bellwether of how they feel livestock farming should be done in this state, and are working hard to weaken LSP’s organizing power as well as the ability of local people to control their community’s destiny. A key part of this strategy is the use of intimidation via the courts and the media. What LSP is fighting is corporate-backed industrial agriculture, which does not care about the future of the land or the communities that land supports. We will not apologize for that.

Rest assured that in the new year the Land Stewardship Project will continue to organize and empower local citizens in Winona County and beyond who care about the future of their communities. Our farmers, land, soil, water, and Main Streets are too valuable to do otherwise.

Jess Anna Glover is LSP's executive director. She can be reached via e-mail or at 612-722-6377.