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John Peck, only half-joking, suggests Wisconsin's longtime slogan, "America's Dairyland," may need to be updated. The new slogan: "The Land of 10,000 Animal-Waste Lagoons." He also offers this nightmare scenario:
"Can you imagine tourists driving up to Door County," asks Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a national organization based in Madison, "and having to endure the stench from manure lagoons produced by factory farms?"
Peck's vision may sound implausible, like Godzilla rising from Lake Mendota to level the Capitol. Support for small-scale farming seems overwhelming in Madison, with its strong food co-op movement and a thriving Farmers' Market, drawing 10,000 to 15,000 people to the Square to buy fresh produce from small farmers at reasonable prices.
But Peck says Dane County, which leads the state in agricultural production, with more than $70 million in sales annually and about 400 farms and 50,000 cattle, faces the specter of an increasingly corporatized and globally based food system.
The emerging food system is based increasingly on factory farms or "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs). These often entail the heavy use of antibiotics to ward off the diseases that proliferate when thousands of animals are penned up in confined spaces.
Critics say the system produces vast lagoons of animal waste and sometimes toxic gases. It displaces small family farms with food produced under industrial conditions. And it relies on legions of low-wage laborers.
In 2003, the state of Wisconsin passed a bill that limited the ability of local communities to oppose large farms. But since then, local fights against CAFO siting or expansion have become considerably larger as family farmers, neighbors of CAFO operations and environmental groups have formed sizable coalitions around the state.
Thus far, the conflict between promoters of CAFO-model farming and family-farm advocates has not turned into a major conflagration. But the battle lines are being drawn and rhetoric is heating up, some focused on the issue of food safety.
Says Will Allen, founder of the Milwaukee-based Growing Power, a food-growing and advocacy organization, "Every time there is an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella, we see a lot more people getting involved."