Planning Commission recommends larger feedlots in Fillmore County

More than 100 people attended Thursday night's hearing, with 30 people providing public comments in favor or in opposition of the animal unit cap increase.

Trinity Johnson, center, reviews a map of Fillmore County's feedlots and wells that have been tested for nitrates brought in by George Nelson while Tom Thompson, left, and Duane Bakke, right, listen to public comment during the Fillmore County Planning Commission meeting in Preston on Feb. 16, 2023.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

PRESTON, Minn. — After nearly two hours of public comment Thursday evening, the Fillmore County Planning Commission voted 5-1 to recommend that the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners adopt an animal unit cap of 4,000, double the county's current limit for feedlots.

Arlynn Hovey cast the single nay vote, while Trinity Johnson abstained. The measure now goes to the five-member county board to ultimately decide whether or not to change the county's current animal unit cap of 2,000.

The proposed amendment to the animal unit cap — which puts a ceiling on the amount of livestock, by weight, that are permitted on a farm or feedlot — drew a crowd of county residents for and against the change. More than 100 people attended the hearing, with about half of the audience watching the proceedings from an overflow room. Thirty people spoke during the public comment period, voicing their support or concerns.

Chris Miller, a Canton Township farmer, was the first speaker during public comment. He questioned whether the county should have an animal unit cap.

"The current 2,000 animal unit feedlot ordinance was implemented in 1997, and it has not been revised in 26 years," said Chris Miller, a Canton Township farmer. "The proposed change from 2,000 to 4,000 animal units in no way changes or negates the environmental review farms would have to do in order to expand or permit over 1,000 animal units regulated by the MPCA."


Many residents who spoke in favor of the change cited how family farms have needed to size up over the past few decades and how animal agriculture impacts local economies.

Katie Drewitz spoke in favor of the increase as a representative of the Fillmore County Farm Bureau.

"Farms and ranches of all sizes conduct business in the local community and generate a large amount of economic activity," Drewitz said.

Katie Drewitz spoke during a public comment period about Fillmore County's animal unit cap during the Fillmore County Planning Commission meeting in Preston on Feb. 16, 2023.
Dene K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

But many people, such as Harvey Benson, opposed the change. A common concern: nitrate pollution in wells and waterways stemming from manure.

"There is a recreation factor as well," said Benson, a 92-year-old resident of Harmony Township. "Many tourists come here to enjoy the fishing and water sports on the rivers. ... Will they keep coming if we further contaminate our waters?"

"We already have many examples of deteriorating water quality and deteriorating air quality," added George Spangler of Chatfield. "I'm here today mostly to let you know that I'm very concerned about how we're going to regulate, through nitrogen management, water quality in wells."

Dayna Burtness, a sixth-generation farmer in Black Hammer Township, questioned why the cap needs to be raised.

"It's my understanding that the vast, vast majority of feedlots in Fillmore County are nowhere near the current animal unit cap of 2,000," Burtness said. "So that begs the question, in my mind: Why is the planning commission trying to double it unnecessarily?"


Later on in the meeting, county zoning officials clarified that there are seven feedlots in the county at or above 1,000 animal units, the threshold where feedlots are subject to permitting and more stringent inspection by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Toward the end of public comment, a Winona County resident chipped in — Ben Daley, an owner/operator of Lewiston-based Daley Farm, spoke about his family's attempts to get a waiver of Winona County's 1,500 animal unit cap and expand their dairy operation.

"You have the opportunity to help out family farms," Daley said. "People who are against some of these types of farms have family members that are trying to raise kids on that farm, and every one of them cares deeply about the water, cares deeply about the community that they're in, and it shows in the way that we run our farm."

After the public comment period ended, Gary Ruskell initially introduced a motion to suggest a 3,000 animal unit cap, but an amendment by Tom Thompson to increase that figure to 4,000 succeeded with a vote of 4-2. The amended motion passed 5-1.

Next, the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners will consider the suggestion to increase the animal unit cap. The board's next regular meeting is scheduled for March 14.

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's health care reporter. She previously covered the Southeast Minnesota region for the Post Bulletin. Dené's a graduate of Kansas State University, where she cut her teeth working for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and the student radio station, Wildcat 91.9. Readers can reach Dené at 507-281-7488 and
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