The Cost of Cheap Food


In economics, as in much of life, everything has consequences. There are always trade-offs. You reap what you sow. The proposed CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) in Bayfield County is no exception. We all want and benefit from cheap food. But what are the consequences?

Proponents of CAFOs claim that modern, large scale agriculture is more efficient. Cheap food is supposedly a great success story of the American economy. But is modern agriculture really cheaper or have many of the inevitable costs simply been ignored or shifted to someone else?

CAFOs are large “factory farms” that confine animals to a small area, usually in buildings, with little or no room to move. They do not allow the animals to feed naturally on outdoor forage or pasture. They concentrate hundreds or thousands of animals. Because of the high numbers, the animals are routinely fed antibiotics to control disease. Because of the high numbers, the amount of manure is astonishing. Large scale CAFOs produce more sewage than cities with twice the population.

The number of CAFOs in Wisconsin is not large as compared to neighboring states, but it is rising. They have more than quadrupled since 2000. Currently Wisconsin has about 250 CAFOs of various sizes and 14 of these are for pigs.

In comparison, there are about 70,000 regular farms. Small farms have been declining in number while the roughly 1500 farms between 1-2000 acres have increased by 13%. The average Wisconsin farm is 209 acres. The average animal farm in 2013 had 110 dairy cows or 320 pigs.

In Bayfield County an Iowa corporation, Reicks Family Farms, wants to house 26,000 pigs. Called Badgerwood LLC, this CAFO will produce 8.7 million gallons of liquid manure per year. This is roughly as much excrement as a city of 50,000 people –equivalent in size to La Crosse.

This huge operation will be less than 8 miles from Chequamegon Bay on the Fish Creek water shed. They plan to dispose of this untreated manure by spreading it on 800 acres in the area. The dominant soil in the area is red clay. This means absorption will be slow and run off into Lake Superior likely.

In addition to massive amounts of untreated sewage, CAFOs require large amounts of water. Water is needed for the animals but also to liquify the manure and to clean the facilities. According to their permit application, Badgerwood would use an estimated 24,367,508 gallons of water per year. All the associated pollutants such as the sanitation chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, bacteria, viruses, and phosphorus will wind up in this water as it is spread on the surrounding countryside.

Many local residents are not happy and have organized to try to stop the project. Water pollution from run off and contamination of local wells is only one issue. They are also concerned about smell, loss of property values, loss of tourism, airborne health effects, and the impact of increased truck traffic to bring in feed and export the feeder pigs.

For many reasons Bayfield County seems like a poor place to put a massive animal feeding operation, especially for pigs. Agriculture in the area has always been small and marginal. The area is not good for feed grain production and pigs don’t eat hay. It is a long distance to markets and for bringing in feed. The proposed site is accessed only by two lane highways. It certainly does not appear to be the best choice based on efficiency of operations. So why would a large corporation with some 34 other facilities in Iowa choose a location in far northern Wisconsin?

Perhaps the company hoped to find a compliant population desperate for jobs so there would be little opposition to the facility. The average agricultural wage in Wisconsin is about $11.30 per hour. Bayfield area is probably closer to $8.00 and has a 7.5% unemployment rate. Land is relatively cheap in Bayfield County. Statewide, farm land sells for $2150 to $4300 per acre but for $1234 in Bayfield County. The Bayfield area also has lots of water.

But mostly the answer is a location not conducive to pig diseases. According to the Milwaukee Journal,

“Gene Noem, director of swine operations for Reicks, said in an email his company was attracted to northern Wisconsin because it is far from hog-intensive areas of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and southern Wisconsin, where the potential for spreading animal diseases is greater.”

According to the opposition group Farms Not Factories, Reicks Family Farms has a problem with bio-security. They say “Reicks is leaving Iowa because of the PEDv (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus), a corona virus with a nearly 100 percent mortality rate in suckling pigs.” Badgerwood is a breeding operation with mostly sows to produce piglets. Bayfield is currently free of this incurable disease. One wonders for how long after 26,000 pigs come to stay.

There are many real life examples of what can go wrong with large CAFOs even with regulation of the industry. Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, is a prime example. One study found a “public health crisis” in the county. Residents report overwhelming noxious odors, manure residue in home tap water, illegal manure spills and runoff into local waterways and properties, undocumented fish kills in local streams and physical ailments, including respiratory issues, headaches, watering eyes and nausea.

Testing of county wells in June 2013 showed that 30.85 % of the wells tested contained nitrates and/or E. coli bacteria at levels deemed unsafe for human consumption by state and federal authorities. The county is home to the largest concentration of farm animals in the state with four times more cows than people. There are 16 regulated CAFOs. It may not be fair to blame all the problems on CAFOs, but it does illustrate what can happen with large concentrations of animals and the spreading of large amounts of manure on the landscape.

This brings us back to trade-offs in economic decisions. Who is going to benefit and who is going to pay the costs? Obviously Reick’s Family Farms expects to make money or they would not be investing close to $18 million to build this facility. The Badgerwood CAFO will be an “extractive” rather than “inclusive” economic development. It will use local resources to generate wealth that is shipped out of the area. As one expert puts it, “These are inevitable consequences of the organizational structure of CAFOs. The greater potential economic efficiency of CAFOs does not translate into positive economic development for rural communities.” Expansion of existing local farms and businesses would return more benefit to the local community.

The residents of Bayfield County and all the people who enjoy the Chequamegon Bay area, are very likely to pay a high cost for whatever economic benefit does result. As the Farms Not Factories web site says, “10 percent of the world’s fresh water is of more value to this planet than cheap bacon and pork tenderloin. 26,000 hogs & 6.5 million gallons of untreated liquid manure do not belong in the Lake Superior Basin.” This is something to chew on with your next bacon cheeseburger.

Opponents of the CAFO are urging concerned citizens to contact the Bayfield County Board of Supervisors before January 26th. Board members need to hear a wide range of perspectives from both Bayfield County constituents and non-Bayfield county residents so that they appreciate the breadth and depth of support for stringent regulations to protect Lake Superior.

Future articles will explore better alternatives, the regulatory structure and efforts by the Bayfield County Board to balance all the issues.

Additional Reading


Farms Not Factories

CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories,

The Rap Sheets, Industrial Dairies in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, The Regulatory Failure of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: A Threat to Public Health and the Environment,

Protecting Your Community From Existing and Proposed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)

The Inevitable Economic, Ecological, and Social Consequences of CAFOs