Who is the Victim? Monthly ChaqTalk from Jim McKnight

Who is the victim?

Efforts to restore clean drinking water to Portage County rural well owners began in 1992, when a UW-Stevens Point research study first identified specific agricultural practices responsible for rising nitrate levels seen in groundwater samples. Thirty years later, after many subsequent sampling studies involving private and municipal wells, that fact has been repeatedly confirmed. The latest, a UWSP 2022 study based on thousands of well samples, found 94% of nitrates in County groundwater come from mostly large areas planted frequently in corn and potatoes. Those crops require high applications of nitrogen, but do not efficiently metabolize those inputs, allowing nitrates to pass through sandy soils into groundwater readily.

In that same timeframe, negative health effects of high nitrates have become well documented. They range from pregnancy complications including miscarriages, thyroid disease, early childhood development problems, and higher rates of specific cancers.

Fast forward to 2019, when County testing in the Village of Nelsonville revealed dangerous nitrate levels in over half of the Village wells, and an independent study confirmed agricultural sources for the pollutants. For the next three years, residents, groundwater scientists, and supporters from throughout the County, used those irrefutable results to ask County authorities to establish monitoring wells in Nelsonville as a test case. Data collected would provide information on where safe water might be found in that aquifer and help assess changes to land use that would improve groundwater quality. It would also offer valuable information on how to address many similar problems in the County. After much debate and citizen and scientist pressure, the Land and Water Conservation Committee (LAWCON) approved a monitoring plan, designed by an independent consultant, in August 2022.

Federal ARPA funds were supposed to provide money for the monitoring but when those funds were frozen and still not released by November, Supervisor Lionel Weaver proposed an amendment to the County budget on November 1 to use County contingency funds to fund the project if ARPA funding fell through.

That was approved by the full Board on a 13-11 vote. Two days later, County Executive John Pavelski vetoed that measure stating that “Capital improvement projects are designed to fund projects that benefit the County as a whole, for all citizens that are affected and/or have access to what those funds are used for.” That the monitoring would only benefit a small group is certainly debatable, given acknowledgement from County staff, Board members, and private groundwater experts that it will provide valuable information to a County-wide problem.

On November 15, the Board failed to override the County Executive’s veto, 13-12, with several dissenters citing the likelihood that ARPA funds would soon be approved and move the project forward. ARPA funding decisions began at the Finance Committee meeting November 28.

What is most disturbing about current Board level discussions on the monitoring project is that they continue the process of misinformation and lack of accountability that has plagued groundwater discussions since 1992. How that dissemination process could still be ongoing is puzzling, given the vast scientific evidence of nitrate and other pollution from production agriculture and the willingness of several local farm groups embracing more sustainable alternatives.

For an explanation, look no further than a statement submitted to the Board before the vote on contingency funds, written by a consortium of powerful, Madison-based lobbyists, including Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, and Venture Dairy Cooperative. It reveals that the gridlock of misinformation and community divisiveness has roots far beyond our County borders and residents.

The full document can be accessed through the November 1 County Board meeting packet, but here are some highlights:

“Testing data makes it clear that the primary cause of nitrate contamination in the Village is well condition.”

False: Pollutants were found in deep and shallow wells and across a broad range of installation dates.

“Residents in the Village have yet to utilize any of the programs available to them. They have been offered no-cost R.O. Systems from the County, and free water offered through the church.”

False: Eight families have already applied for well mitigation funds and several wait for estimates from well drillers to be completed before they can apply for funds. The mitigation funding process has been slow Countywide, with only one resident awarded any funds to date. In addition, R.O. systems have been purchased and installed by residents, but in several cases, have failed to supply safe water because nitrates levels are higher than these systems can filter.

“The issue in Nelsonville is a very specific anti-agricultural agenda.”

False: To label the right of a person to have access to clean drinking water as “against” anyone is twisted logic and counter to citizen guarantees in the Wisconsin State Constitution. Wisconsin law has clearly held industries accountable for activities that negatively affected public health in the past, including recent decisions approving monitoring agricultural activity. The “anti-us” rhetoric has been a long-running divisive strategy on many issues before and, as it does here, serves no purpose except to block effective collaboration.

“Gordondale Farms, the farm which has drawn the ire of a vocal few in the village has 95% of the Nelsonville Recharge Zone already planted in alfalfa and forest.”

False: The actual recharge zone, as documented by numerous scientific studies, extends north of the Village to Onland Lake. A drive by will show the curious hundreds of acres of corn planted in the true recharge area.

“The Board should also bear in mind that neither counties nor municipalities have the authority to require the installation of these monitoring wells.”

False: The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the right of the DNR and municipalities to require monitoring wells to protect water quality resources and the public health based on a clause of the Wisconsin State Constitution.

Ironically, as the three-year struggle to approve monitoring wells in Nelsonville and ensure $240,000 in ARPA funding continues, a $1 million request for ARPA funds from Farming for the Future Foundation in Plover has raised eyebrows on the County Board. In making the request to create a vacation destination and “educational center celebrating the production agriculture community,” several Board members questioned what message that approval might send, given research connecting that specific activity with current groundwater pollution.

In the end, every citizen in the County and State has a right to clean groundwater and government has a responsibility to make it happen. Obfuscation of this simple truth needs to stop, wherever and however it appears. The Village of Nelsonville has every right to bring their plight to light and ask for help in remediating the situation. It is clear that monitoring wells would help greatly in identifying zones of clean water in their area.

Another response to WI Potato & Vegetable Growers Assoc. request for rescue funds for Farming for the Future center

To Dianne Somers, Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association

cc: (County Executive) pavelskij@co.portage.wi.gov, Sustainability.Office@uwsp.edu, sfs@uwsp.edu, 350.stevens.point@uwsp.edu, awra@uwsp.edu, ecorest@uwsp.edu, swcs@uwsp.edu, wigreenfire@uwsp.edu, winr@uwsp.edu

Dear Ms. Somers,

I received your request, the second so far from WI Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, for SLFRF funding (federal relief funds) from Portage County, WI, for the new Farming For the Future Foundation.

Your letter opens with the question of whether young people know where their food comes from, and promises children and families will learn about how their food is grown through various workshops and hands-on exhibits. Because of this youth emphasis, I’m copying my response to various student groups at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I urge you to incorporate these students into the educational staff of your new educational center.

Last night I attended a workshop organized by UWSP Office of Sustainability, with its director, Dave Barbier, and three student panelists presenting on various aspects of sustainability, and how the principles of sustainability are now being worked into the various course offerings and majors being taught in the various colleges at UWSP (Natural Resources, Letters and Sciences, Professional Studies etc.).

Among the 50 or so student participants I listened to at that forum, all had come away with new insights on the urgency of moving forward on sustainability in all aspects of life in this society.

The WI Potato and Vegetable Growers Association member businesses operate in the intersection of what Simon Michaux calls the “industrial ecosystem” (the global industrial economy) and what PNAS calls the “Earth System” (entangled natural ecosystems). What we can observe in Portage County/The Central Sands region is that the operations of industrial agriculture or what FFF calls “production agriculture” in several ways violate conditions of sustainability. Buildup of chemical nitrates in the groundwater, the loss of organic matter in the soils from excessive tillage (decarbonization), and of course the off-gassing of CO2 to the atmosphere from both the decarbonization and the constant combustion of the hydrocarbons petroleum and natural gas needed to operate industrial ag.

By incorporating student educators into your program you may awaken in younger students (K-12) an interest in the bigger questions beyond just “where does our food come from?” to questions like, “what will our future look like?”

In conclusion, this is just a suggestion to your organization, and you may have already given some thought into how you bring youths themselves into the teaching process. Below my name are the student groups and Sustainability Office addresses for you to reach out to. See the cc addresses at top

Bob Gifford
Portage County Board District 10 (Stevens Point wards, Town of Hull wards, Village of Park Ridge).
Student Orgs–
Students for Sustainability
350 Stevens Point–is the place to be for environmental and social justice education, climate change discussion, and other sustainability issues. We currently focus on UW System Fossil Fuel Divestment and #stopline3 campaigning.
American Water Resources Association
Society for Ecological Restoration UWSP
Soil and Water Conservation Society of America
Wisconsin’s Green Fire – UWSP Student Chapter
Women in Natural Resources

One response to WI Potato & Vegetable Growers Assoc. request for rescue funds for Farming for the Future center

(Following is a response to the email sent to (some) Portage County Board supervisors in Portage County, central Wisconsin, a part of the “Central Sands Irrigated Vegetable Growing” zone. The request letter is posted below the response, at bottom.
Dear Mr. Houlihan:

As your request posed to our County Board is likely to come before committee and full board, I thought it important to pose a different narrative to the “metanarrative” that the Farming for the Future Foundation, tied to the large-scale agribusinesses of our County, is likely to be crafting for presentation to our residents.

This is especially timely at this moment when we consider whether Portage County can *ever* be freed of groundwater contamination with chemical nitrates (fossil nitrates let’s say) given the current mode of production in the “production agriculture industry”. As you well know, this County is one of the state’s true “hot spots” for nitrate contamination in the groundwater, as water specialist McNelley’s presentation to the County Board in October clearly revealed in bright red colors set against other “green” areas without the contamination.

For large-scale agribusiness, there is a much more worrisome problem on the horizon than citizen activism over the nitrates problem. That problem is the matter of petroleum and natural gas as “critical raw materials” laid-out in extreme detail by the Geological Survey of Finland in their late-2019 report “Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective” (Michaux, Simon, Dec. 2019, 512 pages).

If you’ve followed the energy sector in the literature as I have for the past 22 years, you may recognize that the “limits to growth” problem has been reached with these natural resources, and this poses a problem for growth (or even maintenance of current levels of production) in “production agriculture.” What is often called “industrial agriculture” is hyper-dependent on the “fossil” hydrocarbons, petroleum and natural gas–from field prep to planting season to weed-control, to harvest, to grain drying and diesel-fueled transport of raw material crops to the “processors, transportation, equipment companies, farm supply businesses and more” mentioned in your ask-letter to County Board.

The commodity-investment consultants Goehring and Rozencwagj released an article “The global Natural Gas Crisis is coming to North America” and-depending on how this crisis unfolds–this will impact greatly upon production or “industrial agriculture.” Natural gas is a critical raw material in the making of chemical nitrates which are used in this high-production agriculture.

Likewise, the developing global spotty diesel-fuel shortages should be a warning signal to industries such as large-scale or “industrial” agriculture that are highly dependent on this refinery product derived from higher-quality, heavier petroleum resources. A resource rarely found in fracked shale in the USA.

These are the natural-resources constraints imposing on the matter of “sustainability” of agriculture. Next you should consider the man-made constraints imposing on the sustainability question.

In the James & Lahti book “The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices” we learn of two of the four “system conditions” which are required to not be violated in order to consider a process/industry/community as “sustainable.”

Of these it seems that “production agriculture” is in ongoing violation of conditions 2 and 3:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

2. concentrations of substances produced by society

3. degradation by physical means

The concentration of nitrates in the groundwater, and off-gassing of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, from massive fossil-fuels combustion, is exactly a “concentration of substances produced by society.”

Likewise, the degradation of soils by “physical means”–extreme tillage as seen in the bare fields of the Central Sands Irrigated Vegetable Zone from post-harvest until spring sowing, leads to off-gassing of carbon dioxide owing to the degradation/oxidation of organic matter in the soil of our region. Fields east of the Wisconsin River generally have very low organic matter counts, contrary to those west of the river, which tend to have more grazed land with less extreme tillage and heavier, clay soils to prevent nitrate percolation as well.

The problem of concentration of nitrates is not going away any time soon, in the Central Sands region.

Among the prime concepts in “regenerative” agriculture is the re-carbonization of the soils, retention of carbon in the root-zones of plants being grown in this agricultural method. Even the organic growers, who tend to favor “clean tillage” because they avoid all herbicide usage, need to discover this relatively new wrinkle in “clean agriculture.”

I agree strongly with your points when you write “The Food + Farm Exploration Center will be a unique destination clearly visible from the I39 corridor… This area presents a growing opportunity to attract tourists and families seeking recreational/educational opportunities. Additionally, it will provide an attractive venue for meetings, conventions, and trade shows which often look to our central Wisconsin location as a convenient gathering spot.” And your paragraph saying “It’s hard to imagine a project that would better celebrate one of Portage County’s primary economic drivers…” Except that I would say “agriculture.”

Here in Portage County we have the Farmshed organization, in which I participated in the early founding discussions. Numerous local small-scale growers belong to a number of organic growers’ associations and would have a great deal to contribute in workshops that could be held at your Center. Likewise, the residents in the Nelsonville area who are struggling with high numbers of wells contaminated with nitrates, have developed an interest in regenerative agriculture as an alternative to their current predicament.

In conclusion, I will say while it seems likely you will get the SLFRF funds you request of the County, it will be crucial going forward that the Food and Farm Exploration Center would fully explore all the risk situations that you will face in the very near future. You could do this by including ALL the participants in local agriculture, from the most giant agribusiness dynasties to the small family growers found at our local Farmers’ Markets. After all, these are “Rescue Funds” you are seeking, and the need for “rescue” in our economy from this point on, will be an ongoing need with no end in sight.

Yours Truly,
Bob Gifford
Portage County Board, District 10

Sources I consult for this reply:

Richard Heinberg et al., Post-Carbon Institute, https://www.resilience.org
Simon Michaux, Geological Survey of Finland, “Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective,”
Nathen Hagens at https://natehagens.com/
Goehring and Rozenzwagj https://blog.gorozen.com/blog/the-global-natural-gas-crisis-is-coming-to-north-america
Ron Patterson site, https://peakoilbarrel.com


Dear Portage County Board Members:

Hi, it’s Tamas Houlihan, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association. I am contacting you today to ask for your support of the SLFRF request ($999,999) for funding to support Farming for the Future Foundation’s construction of the Food + Farm Exploration Center in Plover.
I live at 1629 Casimir Road in Stevens Point, and the majority of the WPVGA members reside in Portage County. The WPVGA is a strong supporter of the Farming for the Future Foundation and we feel there are many good reasons for the Portage County Board to approve funding for this outstanding project.

The Food + Farm Exploration Center will be a unique destination clearly visible from the I39 corridor. It will be adjacent to Lake Pacawa Park and other complementary projects that already exist or are or in the planning process. This area presents a growing opportunity to attract tourists and families seeking recreational/educational opportunities. Additionally, it will provide an attractive venue for meetings, conventions, and trade shows which often look to our central Wisconsin location as a convenient gathering spot.

In its first year of operation, the Center is expected to attract over 100,000 visitors. These visitors will utilize local hotels, businesses, restaurants, and other community attractions. All industries that were negatively impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s hard to imagine a project that would better celebrate one of Portage County’s primary economic drivers, the production agriculture industry. This includes our rich tradition of multi-generation family farms but also processors, transportation, equipment companies, farm supply businesses and more.
Educational and workforce development programs like those offered through the Center and in school districts across the state, will be essential to prepare the next generation agricultural workforce. Portage County depends on a healthy agriculture industry and the Center will play a tangible role in helping meet the challenges of the future. An investment in education is one of the best a community can make with proven positive impact such as lower levels of crime and poverty. Education creates higher living standards and establishes life-long opportunities for residents.

Funding through the SLFRF program will complement the impressive private funding that has already been raised for the Center and demonstrate the county’s willingness to partner on a project that will have a significant, county-wide economic benefit. Through grower and industry donations, we’ve already raised over $26 million toward the Center, but we need an additional $12 million to meet our goal. The Foundation will not require additional capital investment once established as it will be self-sustaining and provide tax revenue for the county government for many years to come (i.e. room tax revenue, sales tax, property tax, etc.)

As the leader of the WPVGA, this project is the best venture I’ve seen in over 35 years of work for the state’s potato and vegetable industry. It will be a huge benefit to all of Portage County. We look forward to Portage County joining us in support of this important community project.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to talk more about the project. I can be reached at 715-551-0775. I hope the Portage County Board gives this request its strongest consideration.