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The River vs. The Farm
By Mary Losure
May 28, 1999
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In Martell, Wisconsin, residents are organizing to stop a new dairy farm planned near one of the best trout streams in the Midwest: the Rush River, which is about an hour's drive east of the Twin Cities. Opponents say a manure spill from the farm's storage lagoons could wipe out the trout in the Rush River for years. Defenders of the project say such fears are based on emotion, not science, and that large-scale dairy operations are the way of the future in Wisconsin.

JULIMAR DAIRY SITS IN PICTURESQUE FARMLAND dotted by red barns, blue silos and the spires of 19th century churches. It's not a traditional Wisconsin dairy farm. Its long, modern, steel-sided sheds house 750 cows, more than 10 times the size of an average Wisconsin dairy herd. Dean Doornink, his son and another partner built Julimar Dairy five years ago. Now, they want to build another facility like it, to more than double the size of their operation. Doornink says in the Wisconsin dairy industry of today, getting big is the only way of surviving.

"Presently there's something like 18,000 to 20,000 dairymen in Wisconsin, and in California, there are more cows than there are in Wisconsin, and there's 2,000 dairymen," Doornink points out. "The average herd size in California is something like 3,000 per dairyman, and that's our competition."

Doornink says the proposed new dairy is only one phase in his and his partners' long-term plans. In the next 15 or 20 years, they hope to increase their dairy herd to 5,000 cows - big even by California standards. Doornink knows he's bucking Wisconsin's tradition of small family farms, but he says he has no other choice. "There's barns standing empty all around the countryside here, no cows in them anymore. If a young fellow wanted to operate a 60-cow dairy in Wisconsin, it would be the ideal place to do it, because there's all kinds of facilities standing empty. Nobody wants to do it anymore. It's long hours, hard work, very little return for your effort."

Doornink says when he and his partners built Julimar Dairy five years ago, opponents raised many of the same objections they are raising now. He says Julimar Dairy, like the planned new expansion, is close to the Rush River, but it hasn't killed the fish, dried up local wells, or polluted the ground water, and he says the new barn won't either.

The clear, spring-fed waters of the Rush River near Martell flow through a steep valley, past limestone cliffs and slopes covered with wildflowers. On a spring afternoon, Dale Brathol and his son Dane have come to catch a few of the river's brown, rainbow and brook trout.

Even though it's a weekday and it's raining, there are people fishing all up and down the river. Brathol is chatting with Harold Fosmo, one of the founders of a local sportsmen club that has been working for 25 years on on restoring the Rush. Fosmo worries pollution from the proposed dairy farm could undo all those years of work. The farm's manure storage lagoons would be built on a dry run leading to the river, in an area subject to flash floods. Fosmo can picture a flood overtopping the lagoon walls and washing millions of gallons of manure into the stream.

If that happened, it would kill all the fish in there from there on down which is the majority of the trout stream," says Fosmo. "It would take at least a decade to even start to get the trout stream back to what it is right now."

Later that evening, more than 50 of the townships 900 residents turn out for a special meeting in the township hall, a former one-room schoolhouse a stone's throw from the river. The vast majority of those who stand up and speak oppose the dairy. Many say they're not against agriculture, just the location of this particular farm. One speaker says any manure lagoons in the area will have to be built with great care, since most of Martell township is underlain by cracked limestone bedrock with direct connections to the ground water.

As opposition to the proposed dairy builds, Martell Township is considering an ordinance that would effectively prohibit large livestock facilities.

Whether or not the township passes such an ordinance, the project must still meet Wisconsin environmental standards and local zoning codes. County zoning law prohibits potential threats to ground water.

Last month, the engineering firm hired to design manure storage for the Doornink's new dairy found fissures in the limestone bedrock underlying the specific site proposed for the lagoons, but Dean Doornink says he will continue to survey the same parcel of land to try to find a spot where the bedrock is not cracked and the lagoons can be built.