Farmers Face Further Review

A letter from county conservationists has put farmers on their heels. The Soil and Water Conservation Department (SWCD) sent a letter to farmers and landowners explaining that their nutrient management plans are under further review. Farmers such as Joe Haberli of Haberli Farms Inc. are now fielding calls from concerned landowners.

“This was very sneaky,” said Haberli. “The way they went about it was just a scare tactic to [mess] with the farmers. I probably got 30 calls and they didn’t tell us they were sending out the letters. It made us look very stupid.”

The decision to send the letter was in response to an audit review of nutrient management plans last year. The audit found each of the eight nutrient management plans reviewed to contain false information.

Nutrient management plans detail where and when farmers are laying nutrients such as manure on their fields. They are used to ensure the manure being laid will not enter the groundwater, a growing issue in Door County since the contamination of several wells in Jacksonport last year.

“The purpose of sending this letter was that we received the plan, but until someone from our office actually does some field work, we can’t approve it yet,” said County Conservationist Mitch McCarthy. “In the meantime they can still go about their operations and they just have to act as if those features are there.”

Sensitive features include exposed bedrock, bedrock crevices and sinkholes. Nutrient management plans contain maps that identify all of these features on a given plot, but if the plans, primarily produced by the farmers, do not list these areas, the SWCD does not know about them without sending a conservationist there.

“I know a neighbor that lost land after this letter,” said Haberli. “She called the farmer and said, ‘They haven’t approved it and so you don’t get our land anymore.’” Haberli admits that the letter was probably not the only reason for the change. But Haberli and fellow farmers have been addressing upset landowners.

McCarthy authored the letter that was sent out to each farm operator. The letter copied all of the landowners that are listed on that farmer’s nutrient management plan.

But some landowners had no idea why they were getting the letter.

Whether for business expansion or finding soil that hasn’t been farmed, looking for new land is a daily practice for many farm operators. On April 1, the rules on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) changed. Until this year, when large farms found new land to use they only needed a permit from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, any land added to a nutrient management plan must be available for a 21-day public comment period.

“If there’s so many public comments, then it could potentially be denied,” said McCarthy.

Before this requirement went in place, farm operators put prospective land on their nutrient management plans.

“If [the farm operator] wanted to add additional land to their plan, they would have to have an opportunity to have public comment on it,” said McCarthy. McCarthy believes this incentivized farmers to put land on their nutrient management plan before the public comment law went into effect.

“This may certainly have been the case,” said Joe Baeten, Nutrient Management Program Coordinator at the DNR. “But I do not know of any specific examples where this was the case.”

The SWCD used the lands listed in the nutrient management plans to send out their letter. So farmers may have no relation to the landowner of prospective farmland. But these landowners still got the letter.

However, Haberli used prospective land as a safety net for manure storage. His operation found land in the southern part of the county that had soil deep enough for spreading manure.

“We have to put this land on our nutrient management plan just in case we have an issue this fall and we need somewhere to put the manure,” said Haberli.

Baeten stated these manure agreements are common among farmers. The land listed in these manure agreements must still be added to the nutrient management plans even if they are never used during the year.

The SWCD will not approve the nutrient management plans until they have inspected the sites and found them to be in compliance with the plans that were submitted.

But how long does it take to comb through each acre of farmland in Door County?

“That’s the million dollar question,” said McCarthy. “There’s over 200 operators and that roughly equates to 80,000 acres, so we’re going to get boots on the ground.”

Haberli is advocating for farmers to work together in promoting their own needs.

“That’s the biggest problem we have,” said Haberli. “Farmers don’t like to work with farmers. I’ve been trying to get a couple of other farmers together and get a lawyer on these issues.”

Meanwhile, farm operators such as Haberli continue the farming practices they have used for years and wait to hear from the SWCD. If their plans are not approved, farmers face citations of up to $389.50 if they do not get in compliance with the SWCD’s standards. A court may also order that a farmer stop all operation on the land.

“Farmers have always sat back and taken all the grief and just rolled with the punches,” said Haberli. “It’s getting to the point that we’re not going to do that.”