LAKE MILLS -- As is always the case when it comes to environmental issues in and around Lake Mills, the populace takes great interest, so turnout was solid Thursday evening for a meeting related to a proposed expansion of Daybreak Foods' chicken operation.
As the food industry's demand for cage-free chickens increases, Daybreak officials have been in the process of attempting to expand their operation in the town of Lake Mills. Thursday's informational meeting, moderated by members of Citizens For a Better Environment of Lake Mills, was broken into parts. These included a presentation from Daybreak Foods representatives, a question and answer session for members of the public, comment from a concerned nearby resident and a closing.
Daybreak has been proposing a plan to convert its permit from 1.8 million chickens to 2.7 million, including pullets. Although the current permit is for 1.8 million birds, the facility in Lake Mills actually has only about 1 million. An article in the Nov. 15, 2017 edition of the Daily Times addresses the more technical aspects of the proposed expansion.
The addition of 30-50 workers would come with the expansion, Daybreak leaders said Thursday. That would be double the number of current employees at the Lake Mills facility.
A theme that came across as the evening progressed was that Daybreak official's mission for the evening was to convey their plans to become a better neighbor and they are already taking strides to do so as they plan their expansion.
Bobby Harris of Daybreak began the two-hour session with a presentation that addressed, among other things, why the firm wants to expand its cage-free chicken operation in Wisconsin at the Lake Mills site, the firm's short-term plans and its future farm solutions. Acknowledging the site's history as Creekwood Farms, another chicken operation under different owners, Harris said the business is moving to serving restaurants and grocery stores in which the demand for cage-free chickens is quickly on the rise.
The order of the night, however, was for about 45 members of the public to hear how Daybreak would continue to tame its chicken manure and chicken mortality odors. A wastewater treatment pond was also called into question as a possible odor source.
Harris confronted the odor issue almost immediately, discussing how Daybreak is improving its odor-prevention process.
Harris said Daybreak has taken over composting of chicken waste from what he called a "third-party contractor" that wasn't doing the job well enough.
He said Daybreak has installed a two-stage chicken crematorium to handle bird mortality at the farm in a safe, odor-free and environmentally friendly manner. He also said bird nutrition is being improved and that will lead to less moisture in bird manure, hence less odor.
Harris said Daybreak is noticing improved odor results through its "best composting practices" and this would continue through the expansion.
Daybreak officials said they are also planning to do as much work with manure, including its hauling, during the workweek, when people are not outside as much to experience any dust or odor issues. Daybreak's biggest problem with being what some labeled "a good neighbor" has come via its odor and dust problems.
One woman said she wants to have a graduation party for her son but feels unable to do so because of the potential for odors that would ruin the event. She said her clothes and vehicle reek of chicken manure. Others said they feel like they live some days on "lockdown" near the Daybreak facility. Due to the odors they say it emits, they cannot open their doors or windows.
Jefferson County Supervisor Steve Nass spoke with the Daily Times during the meeting. He said he lives near Daybreak and he can rarely smell it. Nass could not explain why some people near it are overpowered by the stenches while he and some others experience nothing. Nass said it could be the elevations of houses, wind directions or certain people's sensitivities to such things that lead to these differences in perception.
Harris presented diagrams and artists' renderings of what the proposed new facility, which will sit on 79 acres, will look like and how it will function. The facility will be across Crossman Road from the current farm which Daybreak, in general, expects to raze and return to a farm field condition.
Delving more deeply into how dust and odor will be controlled under questioning from the public, Harris said the cage-free chickens will have twice the room in which they currently live, which is good all the way around in terms of their wellbeing. He also said this allows for more air to circulate around their droppings, thus helping dry the manure and make it less pungent to the nose.
Harris also went on to discuss the technologically advanced filter media that will be used to clean the air at Daybreak.
If Daybreak gets some of the permits it needs, it plans to break ground and begin moving earth near the proposed pullet facility April 15.
At this point, a conditional use permit for Daybreak may be approved at a meeting of the Lake Mills Town Board Tuesday. The Jefferson County Zoning and Planning Committee will meet March 15 and it is possible that panel will address a chicken farm expansion and livestock siting application. A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources public hearing on a five-year wastewater/water pollution permit for Daybreak Foods is expected in 30-60 days in Lake Mills.
Harris said he has been "very impressed" with the odor control success that he has seen achieved at other poultry farms he has visited that use the same technology that will be employed at the expanded Daybreak in Lake Mills. He said he would buy a house near the proposed Daybreak Lake Mills expanded facility.
"I am that confident about what we are doing," he said.
One neighbor said he remains skeptical the odors can be controlled, even using the latest technology promised by Daybreak.
"The biggest thing when it comes to controlling manure odor," Harris replied, "is going from 72 percent moisture content to 20 percent. That is huge. This is a radical change for us."
Robert Mertz called Daybreak's odors "pretty atrocious" and asked for more information on how chicken cadavers will be handled. Daybreak representatives reiterated cadavers will be cremated, rather than composted as they had been, leading to less odor. Harris added that, even with the addition of chickens, the mortality rate should not rise.
Noise was another issue on the minds of some members of the public.
Harris said exhaust fans will be internal rather than external and that other causes of industrial farm noise are being identified and fixed. He said that, for two months out of the year, Daybreak will be drying corn using corn dryers, but the noise should not be that noticeable.
Brian Benisch said some days the odors from the farm near his home have been "so putrid I thought I was going to vomit." He urged town and county officials to deny all permits for the new construction until there is more proof all improvements described by Daybreak will be guaranteed effective and upgraded as the years progress.
Jane Berg also lives near the Daybreak operation and said dust is a concern to her. Harris said if the new facility goes in, it is planned that most roads will be hard-surfaced to control dust razed by wind and trucks.
It was the conclusion of all that better communication between area citizens and Daybreak Foods officials is needed. Daybreak said it would be willing to meet with its neighbors frequently to address their concerns and to keep lines of communication open.
It was also suggested a relatively new form of odor-detecting and measuring technology known as a "Nasal Ranger" be employed near Daybreak to make sure neighbors' noses are not being offended by the operation.
It was noted Daybreak will continue to buy its corn from local sources. Harris said all corn used as feed for the chickens will still be coming from a 30-mile radius of Lake Mills.
Tony Beard, a self-described newcomer to Lake Mills, said he has done extensive work looking into the Daybreak environmental concerns. He said he is not associated with Daybreak Farms, nor any local environmental group. He called himself "The Lone Ranger" in the matter. Beard said it seems to be a conflict that can be remedied. He acknowledged that, in his view, Daybreak is addressing the chicken manure and mortality concerns. He pointed out that he believes a wastewater treatment pond may also be to blame for odor and that if this is addressed, things may go more smoothly.
"Raising a lot of chickens in one spot is a nationwide issue," Beard said. "It creates odors, but I feel the effort is being made here by Daybreak ... Everyone has a right to a good life and there is a middle ground in this we can all come to."