Wisconsin Residents Defeat Multi-Million Dollar Factory Farm Gas Operation


By Mary Dougherty, senior regional representative, SRAP

“The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”―Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

David vs. Goliath—three words that conjure up images of underdogs, bullies, unfair fights, and unexpected victories. These fights are inspiring, they are compelling, and they are often hard-won. I know this all too well.

In 2015, the owner of a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Iowa wanted to move 26,000 hogs into the Lake Superior watershed, home to 10 percent of the world’s freshwater (read my story here).

In August 2023, residents in Lind, Wisconsin, found themselves up against its very own Goliath, disguised as a multi-million dollar corporation peddling a biodigester as a “manure and climate solution.”

Brooks Dairy Farm, a CAFO with about 1,000 cows, partnered with Vanguard Renewables to build a biogas facility that would use Brooks’ manure and industrial food waste transported from facilities within a 100-mile radius to create “pipeline ready” renewable natural gas (RNG).

In order to make this manure-and-climate-solution dream come true, they needed to convince the town planning commissioners and town supervisors to amend the Comprehensive Plan Preferred Land Use Map and approve a rezone from Agricultural Enterprise to Rural Industrial-Intensive. And that’s when the Davids stepped up, joined forces, and took aim at a proposal that would change their community forever.

We had our first meeting in early October and I have to admit, my head was spinning as they recounted what they had discovered: Vanguard Renewables’ website boasted their co-digesters “can take virtually anything,” potential open meeting law violations, questions about hazardous air emissions, more than 20 trucks a day delivering industrial food waste, uncertainty around how it would be regulated by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), potential water pollution from the digestate, conflict of interest issues on the town board, and spot zoning concerns.

It was a virtual smorgasbord of issues that could be boiled down to one simple question: does this proposal comply with Lind’s comprehensive plan that was passed in 2007? Talk about David and Goliath. A comprehensive plan, written in 2007 by the community, had the power to send a multi-million dollar corporation packing—now that’s a slingshot!

We rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

We started a Facebook page, submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, mailed letters and postcards, held in-person and virtual meetings, transcribed the audio from the September planning commission meeting, developed a social media campaign, researched the impacts of biogas and co-digesters, reached out to experts and allies, designed a website, met with reporters and journalists, spent hours researching Vanguard Renewable’s environmental record in Massachusetts and Vermont, drafted comments for public hearings, and made multiple emails and phone calls to DNR staff.

It was a crash course in local government, environmental regulation, scientific research, and community organizing. Thankfully, it paid off.

The first public hearing in December was postponed because the crowd exceeded the capacity of the building. And at the February 28 public hearing, the town board of supervisors voted against the comprehensive plan amendment and rezone request. During four hours of testimony, community members spoke eloquently about the health and environmental risks of the proposal, how it didn’t comply with the comprehensive plan, and what was at stake if an industrial biogas facility was allowed to operate in their small rural town.

They were the underdogs—the Davids—in this fight. Meanwhile, Vanguard Renewables had deep pockets, slick presentations, and attorneys on speed-dial. But Vanguard underestimated the transformational power of a community united.

As Gladwell said, these situations “can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Vanguard Renewables, a multi-million dollar corporation, pulled its application in late March. There will be no digester in Lind, population 1,430.

It’s truly remarkable what’s possible when a community pulls together, takes on Goliath—and wins!

About SRAP

For more than 20 years, SRAP has served as a mobilizing force to help communities protect themselves from the damages caused by industrial livestock operations and to advocate for a food system built on regenerative practices, justice, democracy, and resilience. Learn more at sraproject.org