In few days I head for my summer writing retreat, a log cabin in the Wisconsin north woods where my mom grew up. It is halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth as the crow flies. This is where I go to detoxify from the toxic parts of working at a giant corporate university, to focus on the research and writing that is supposedly half of my job (squeezed into a tiny time-hole during the school year), and to breath the clean air and enjoy the cool nights that are lacking in Tennessee.
This is where I have a sense of home and rooted family traditions, and where I have hoped to spend much of each year when I retire.
But now a massive factory farm for hogs, called a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) is trying to move into the area. Beyond the impact on the animals, farmworkers, and competing small farms, this operation proposes to produce truly massive amounts of hog shit every year, much of which will go into the ground water, the nearby National Scenic Riverway of the St. Croix, or just onto the fields and into the air around the township. Insofar as any local people support the idea – and few seem to do so – it is a clear case of short-term economic considerations undermining long-term economic self-interest, given that a key tax base in this area is summer recreation that could be gutted by the project. Here is a good report about the plans, and here is a petition with useful information.
Since I cannot be there for a township meeting on Thursday, I wrote the letter below. I post it here in case anyone wants to circulate it as a link.
An Open Letter to James Melin, Trade Lake Township Board
Dear Mr. Melin,
I do not believe we have met, although I hope and expect that we will one day. I am writing because I had wished to be at the Trade Lake township board meeting this Thursday to voice my concerns about the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) you have proposed, but I will be unable to make it.
My family, on the side of my mother (Harriet Wedin, whose sister Carolyn still lives in the township), was amid the founders of Trade Lake and West Sweden. Some of them homesteaded on land where Classert’s Resort, on Round Lake, now stands. My mother’s first school-teaching job was next door to your farm, in the building where Bass Lake Lumber now operates. I have visited Trade Lake Township all my life, and spent large parts of my summers there for the past fifteen years.
By no means am I hostile to farming as a form of land use and way of life. My father and his brother ran a dairy in southern Wisconsin, and I am glad there is a dairy farm near a simple cabin I have built in Trade Lake Township, east of Round Lake on Highway 48. The occasional days in which my neighbors spread manure across the road or feedlot smells waft over to my cabin do not trouble me.
However, to put in a CAFO seems to me a radically different, very troubling, thing. As I am sure you know, there are serious questions about whether this would be safe for water in the area and downstream, and for air quality throughout the area. In my view CAFOs move the technology and scale of farming in a direction that is highly questionable as a public policy—and I mean wherever CAFO’s are unrolled, whether neighbors (including family farmers) must deal with immediate consequences or not.
Your decision will be highly consequential for my life, and I believe I can speak for many other local people, although perhaps in an unusually striking way. I will soon retire from a career at the University of Tennessee. I have hoped to move to Trade Lake, because I love the landscape and my family roots. The above-mentioned cabin is very basic, in a former pasture on land where my mom grew up. I spend my summers there, working on my research, when classes are not in session in Tennessee (where it is far too hot!).
I am seriously considering building a nicer house for retirement on a plot of land I recently bought on Little Trade Lake, not far from your farm. I am well aware, from my experience of buying it, that the Trade Lake Town board, which you chair, had a long-running discussion about how to use this piece of land. You decided that developing it to generate a tax base of lake-house owners (whether people with local roots, as I have, or not) was a priority.
So here is a case where your decision had been unfolding in the way you hoped.
All such plans are on hold now! I certainly will not proceed with any building until I learn much more about whether a CAFO will ruin the air and water quality. And even if I do proceed, assuming a CAFO does too, it can only be with a heavy weight of sadness about what huge-scale, environmentally questionable farming would likely do to the community, including the small farmers among my friends and relatives.
Beyond this, obviously I am not pleased about the probable serious erosion of property values throughout the entire township. Although I personally have not invested much yet, I feel deeply for my neighbors who have far higher sunk costs.
For me the core issue is not about money: it puts into question whether I any longer will want to spend the last part of my life living at Trade Lake. I say that with great sadness.
Please multiply my story by the dozens! I am writing this as an open letter, and will also send it to The Leader, because I very much hope that, even if you personally will not reconsider, still the community may be able to block this plan in the interest of the public good. Meanwhile I urge you, on a personal level, for the sake of our beautiful township, to reconsider.
Thank you for considering these thoughts. Of course I would like to know more about your side of the story if you wish to get together in the coming days.