So, last Wednesday night, April 7, I got a text from a number that, at first, I didn't recognize.
No, no one was informing me my car's warranty was about to expire. Turns out, it was dairy farmer Parker Byington telling me that at about 2 p.m. the next day, he'd be loading a bunch of cows onto animal trailers and trucking them to Colorado.
If you haven't read the story and/or watched the video interview with Byington, I'd be amazed. As of this Wednesday morning, the story has been viewed nearly 40,000 times online for nearly 16,000 minutes. That's 11 days of nonstop reading in roughly six days.
With such a well-read story, you'd think the world would offer a universal "attaboy."
Yeah, that's not necessarily the case.
Checking my work
After the story about Byington and his traveling herd was posted last Friday evening, I decided on Saturday to see if it was doing well by our website analytics. I like an "attaboy" as much as the next guy or gal (those are "attagirls"), even when those compliments come from a measure of clicks on a website.
That unfortunate act led me to Facebook discussions about the story, and people fighting back against what I'd written. Some doubted facts and figures. Some took issue with the fact I didn't interview "the other side" of the story.
What's the other side? Well, for you folks not involved in the business of feedlots, that would be the folks who think large feedlots are an environmental disaster. In Winona County, that means nitrates in the groundwater at rates above the state standard.
"Why don't you talk about that in this article?" they cried. "Whatever happened to fair and balanced?"
Checking my past
I certainly tried fair and balanced. I reached out to the three Winona County commissioners who — if I'm reading the tea leaves correctly — are happy with the animal unit cap right where it sits at 1,500. However, two did not return my phone call, which has happened in the past, and one gave me the "There's pending litigation on this issue" (there isn't, but I won't quibble) and a hearty "No comment."
And while in the past I've certainly written about the reason the county enacted an animal unit cap in an attempt to limit large feedlots, which some people believe is a major source of nitrate contamination in the groundwater, in this particular story, I focused on the economic impact of 245 cows taking a powder.
Could I have included something about the environmental angle? Possibly. But not every story can tell every facet of a large issue. Every story about the Derek Chauvin trial isn't inundated with extra paragraphs about the battle between people calling for police reform vs. folks who support cops unquestioningly. Not every story about immigrants in our community needs to bring up border walls and DACA.
Besides, I wrote extensively about the nitrate problem a couple years ago. How quickly they forget — and turn on you.
Anyway, Winona County has, according to agriculture experts on both sides of the discussion, the most restrictive feedlot regulations in Minnesota. Parker Byington left Winona County because of those regulations.
Regional Reporter Brian Todd covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties along with some cities in Olmsted County. In the After Deadline column every Thursday, he shares behind-the-scenes tales from the newsroom.