University of Wisconsin-Extension agents are disregarding their own policies to promote the cause of factory farming in Wisconsin.
Extending a helping hand to factory farms
Andrew C. Hanson
Here is a little expert advice: Always be suspicious of expert advice. Be especially suspicious when the “expert” is telling you, whether you are a farmer or not, that you should tolerate the odors, dust, noise, and water pollution associated with a large livestock factory that wants to move into your community.
The state experts offering up this advice are University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agents. UW-Extension Chancellor Kevin P. Reilly is permitting Extension agents, whose roles are strictly educational, to provide testimony at public hearings in favor of livestock factories that want to move into Wisconsin communities.
Chancellor Reilly’s position is surprising in light of the fact that UW-Extension policy strictly limits the ability of Extension agents to testify in legal matters, let alone act as advocates. There is little question that “legal matters” include local zoning hearings and DNR permit hearings, because those permits grant legal rights to the permit holders.
Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit environmental law center for which I work, recently teamed up with Family Farm Defenders to call into question the UW-Extension’s disregard for its own policy.
The UW policy recognizes that faculty and staff members will be asked to provide expert testimony, but UW employees are discouraged from testifying unless subpoenaed. If they are required to testify, they are expected to limit their testimony to “objective facts.”
Irv Possin helped bring this to a head. A UW-Extension agent for Fond Du Lac County, Possin testified for Lake Breeze Dairy at a conditional use permit hearing in the Town of Calumet last summer. Lake Breeze Dairy is a livestock factory that now has a zoning permit to house 1,500, and eventually up to 3,000, cows. Possin clearly identified himself as an Extension agent and went on to just as clearly testify in favor of granting the conditional use permit to the livestock factory. In his testimony, Possin derided the residents of the Town of Calumet for their unwillingness to accept the truck traffic, road damage, noise, dust, odor, air pollution, and water pollution that have been associated with livestock operations of this scale in Wisconsin and in other states.
In short, Possin used the power of the state of Wisconsin to insult the town’s residents, including small farmers and other concerned citizens who are concerned about the impact of a mega-dairy in their town. And afterward, a spokesperson for Chancellor Reilly told Wisconsin Public Radio that what Possin did was entirely appropriate.
Many in the Town of Calumet community felt stung by the UW-Extension agent’s conduct, which is understandable when someone in a position of authority disregards your legitimate concerns as hypersensitive trivialities, and does so in a particularly patronizing way. And this agent is being paid with their tax dollars.
One more thing: We are facing a budget crisis, and paying our Extension agents to serve an entity other than the public seems like a poor use of scarce public money. Allowing UW-Extension agents to testify as advocates for private companies at permit hearings is a misuse of state funds and an unethical exercise of the power of the state of Wisconsin. Chancellor Reilly should rein in his “experts” and tell them to represent the public, not just the livestock factories.
Last month brought news that UW-Extension, amid criticism, is now revamping its policy on public testimony by its agents. It’s possible that the new policy will restrict those agents from testifying in land use matters except when requested to do so by the state or local government. Never mind that UW policy is already quite clear on this issue.
So, the next time you find yourself at a public hearing for a factory farm and you see a UW-Extension agent saunter up to the podium and offer a hearty endorsement of the 1,000-plus cow facility in question, ask yourself one question: Who do these agents work for? Then ask your local zoning board the other, almost rhetorical, question: Did the local government ask for this agent’s testimony?
If UW-Extension follows through with the “new” restrictions, we will have taken a small step towards liberating our public officials from corporate influence and making sure the factory farm debate in Wisconsin is a fair fight.
April 16, 2003
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Andrew Hanson is an attorney who lives in Madison.