When they moved to rural Lake Mills a few years ago they envisioned quiet nights relaxing outside and enjoying nature after long days at work, but some residents south of Lake Mills say it’s not quiet. The Wegers and the Helleksons, who live on opposite sides of Daybreak Foods Creekwood Farms cage free facility, say the noise is keeping them up at night and making it difficult to enjoy their property during the day. The fans attached to the barns at the new Daybreak facility, constructed last year at N5505 Crossman Rd. to replace old buildings, are what’s making the noise, the homeowners say. Those barns house about two million laying hens and 600,000 pullets, according to Daybreak.
“The fans are very, very quiet today,” Daniel Weger, N5255 Crossman Rd., said of a morning in early June while sitting outside at his home.
“Last night was probably the worst we’ve ever heard it,” said Sherry Hellekson, N5604 County Rd. A. “I didn’t get much sleep. You could hear it in the bedroom. You could hear it in our bathroom again. How do you get away from it? You can’t run from it.”
Daniel Weger says, Wisconsin’s Right to Farm law has stripped local taxpayers of their rights.
“Our lives have turned into a living hell with the fan noise sounding like a B52 on a runway,” he said looking towards the farm across the field. “We have tried to reach out to Daybreak to find out if they were going to remediate the noise but ever since they received approval for the overhead conveyor system over Crossman Road they stopped responding.”
The state’s Right to Farm law, first passed by the state legislature in 1982 and strengthened in 1995, was designed to protect law abiding farmers from lawsuits alleging nuisance due to normal farming activities. Examples of cases brought to court in other states include odor, noise, dust and pollution caused as a result of farming activities.
For the people living near the facility, odor has been the prevailing issue for them for many years, but now it’s noise for those living close by.
In 2018, the Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Committee approved a conditional use permit for the expansion of Daybreak Foods facility at the corner of Crossman Road and County Highway A, construction is nearly complete.
Creekwood Farms has been owned by Daybreak Foods Inc. since 2010, when it purchased the farm from SBJ Organics LLC, according to Jefferson County land records.
The expansion at the farm looked to satisfy customer demand for cage-free eggs, Daybreak officials said at a Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Committee meeting in 2018.
The Creekwood facility was one of the oldest large-scale egg farms in the country with most of the barns being built in the 1970s. The expansion which included three pullet houses, five-layer barns and supporting equipment such as a feed mill and an over-the-road conveyor replaced the outdated barns and equipment that have been causing odor issues in the area for years. Daybreak Foods Inc. is based in Lake Mills, but also has production facilities in Graettinger and Eagle Grove, Iowa, and Marysville, Ohio.
Daniel Weger says the township and the county both have noise ordinances and are refusing to enforce them. They’ve had the Town of Lake Mills Police Chief Matt Miller at their home to measure the decibel levels as well as Matt Zangl, director, Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Department.
The Town of Lake Mills has a public nuisance ordinance which defines a public nuisance as a thing, act, occupation, condition or use of property which shall continue for such a length of time to substantially annoy, injure or endanger the comfort, health, repose or safety of the public. Or, in any way render the public insecure in life or in the use of property. The ordinance continues to say all loud, discordant and unnecessary noises or vibrations are prohibited apart from agricultural activity and the operation of farm equipment and machinery for agricultural purposes and practices permitted in Jefferson County.
The state statutes say if agricultural use meets the criteria defined in the law a court cannot find the actions of the producer to be a nuisance if two conditions are met. A plaintiff bringing a lawsuit cannot have “come into” the nuisance; if the agriculture in question has been continuously occurring for longer, it holds standing according to statute. The second condition is that the agricultural use does not pose a “substantial threat to public health or safety.”
The law also limits the court’s ability to remedy damages. If the court finds that the agricultural use is indeed a threat to public health and safety, they may order the farmer to mitigate the hazards, but they must consult with Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection and the Department of Natural Resources about appropriate mitigation and offer the farmer adequate time (at least a year) to do so.
Zangl, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, told Daniel Weger in an email if they would choose to pursue action against Daybreak and they (the plaintiff) would lose, they may have to pay all court and attorney fees for the farm.
Weger says the Right to Farm shouldn’t protect factory farms, when it was intended to help the independent farmer.
“They were there before us, which we get, but the addition wasn’t,” Hellekson said.
Zangl said in the same email to Daniel Weger even though the addition is new, Daybreak is still covered under the Right to Farm law.
The addition to the facility is also a part of the Agriculture siting process, which asks the Town of Lake Mills for approval.
“We reviewed and complied with our due diligence in the case,” said Hope Oostdik, town chairperson. “I spent many hours with Patricia Cicero, water resources specialist in Land Conservation and with Matt Zangl, Zoning director, being educated on the process, the materials presented and in review of the documents provided. After this process, the board voted in favor of allowing the expansion with monitoring terms and annual reporting from Daybreak.”
“We all moved to the country for peace and quiet,” said Stacy Weger.
“This is not peace and quiet,” Hellekson agreed. “There are times where I’ve been hunting, and I’ve had to leave my blind.”
Zangl wrote in the email to Daniel Weger, he is in the process of reaching out to Daybreak to discuss the fan noise with them.
“We, as a County, will do our best to find a resolution to the problem,” he wrote.
Area homeowners say despite the assurances given to them at Lake Mills Town Board meetings by Daybreak officials the fans at the facility are still too loud but gave credit to Daybreak for correcting the smell at the farm.
“The smell is all but gone,” Daniel Weger said.
“I’ll agree with that,” Hellekson said.
“For that we are thankful,” Daniel Weger said. “It doesn’t take your breath away anymore.”
Rick Roedl, Daybreak Foods capital projects manager told the Leader, the company has worked with the Town and County on the issues at the cage free facility.
“Daybreak has worked very closely with the residents and governments of the Town of Lake Mills and Jefferson County over several years on the Creekwood Cage Free farm project to be a responsible neighbor to our community,” Roedl said. “The issue of the fan noise has been discussed in many meetings with residents as well as in several town board meetings. Daybreak engaged a third-party acoustical engineering firm to perform testing of the fan noise and has shared this information with residents as well as in town board meetings.”
The equipment to measure the noise was placed on the Hellekson’s property and at the Daybreak facility in multiple locations by Hankard Environmental over a 10-week period. According to the report, the purpose of the measurements is to determine the level and frequency of noise emissions from the facility.
“Noise levels were also measured continuously at three locations on the property of the residence of concern, which is located approximately 2,300 feet north-northeast of the Facility. In addition to the unattended monitoring, Hankard Environmental staff spent time at the residence listening for noise from the Facility and audio recordings taken at the measurement location near the house were reviewed,” the report reads.
The report concluded the noise from the fans operating at the facility are audible at the residence some of the time, depending on fan operation, wind direction and background noise.
“Based on our analysis of the measurement data, the review of select audio recordings, and direct observations (listening) at the residence, we conclude that noise from the Facility is, at most, 42 to 45 dBA.”
The World Health Organization generally says there are no health concerns when environmental noise levels are less than 45 decibels. The Hearing Health Foundation reports a typical refrigerator running is 40 decibels and a normal conversation is 60 decibels.
Using a decibel reader on his phone Daniel Weger says he averages readings in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
“We recently ordered a decibel reader,” he said as he was taking a measurement.
The noise report continued, “It should be noted that fan noise is not audible at the residence all of the time. First, the fans do not and will not operate all of the time (they will operate primarily in warm weather). Second, the wind direction will play a significant role, with the Facility only being distinctly audible during calm conditions or when the wind is blowing from a southerly direction. Lastly, particularly during the daytime and into the early evening hours, noise from traffic, aircraft, the activities of neighbors, etc. is audible and in some cases will be louder than noise from the Facility. Under these conditions fan noise may not be audible. This is corroborated by the fact that fan noise was distinctly audible on only one out of the five visits that Hankard Environmental staff has made to the site to date.”
Daybreak says, right now, no further actions are planned to remediate the fan noise.
“The World Health Organization has concluded there are no health issues at noise levels of 45 decibels or below and the fact that the independent engineering report indicated that the fan noise is an intermittent issue,” Roedl said.
The homeowners don’t feel like the Lake Mills Town Board or Daybreak are listening to them.
“We’re not trying to create problems for Daybreak. They built their building, there’s nothing we can do about it, we understand that. We just want to live our lives peacefully. Noise free, smell free, this is our livelihood,” Daniel Weger said.
Roedl mentioned the over-the-road conveyor is now fully operational and Oostdik said she has received no complaints on its operation.
For the Lake Mills Town Board permitting is out of their hands.
“We depend on the County for guidance and direction,” Oostdik said. “Daybreak has done an audio study and the facts presented to us showed they are operating within the allowable decibel levels. Many of the complaints received are followed with digital print outs from cell phone applications by the surrounding homeowners. The results of these home studies are questionable.”
Oostdik also mentioned many of the homes in the area around Daybreak turned over in ownership in the year Daybreak wasn’t fully operational due to the Avian Flu.
“These new homeowners were surprised when the plant went back on line and then the construction began. Once the buildings were up, complaints began of noise from the fans in the rear of the five buildings,” Oostdik said. “I have always felt that Daybreak has been part of our neighborhood and the new buildings would be state of the art and a much-needed improvement. I recognize Daybreak as a leading employer and the biggest ag operation in our township.”
The Town of Lake Mills Police Department has responded to homeowner complaints about the noise.
“We’ve received numerous complaints since the new buildings were in, primarily from two individuals,” said Sgt. Matt Miller, chief of police for the Town of Lake Mills. A third complainant has since moved away. “The county sheriff’s department has also responded to several complaints.”
In recent years the Right to Farm laws have come into question across the country inspiring a film called “Right to Harm,” focusing on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, like Daybreak’s Creekwood facility, and how they affect the people who live near them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines CAFOs as agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. CAFOs have changed agriculture in America, according to a report from the National Association of Local Boards of Health, in 1920 it took a chicken approximately 16 weeks to reach 2.2 pounds, today they can reach five pounds in seven weeks. When CAFOs are properly managed they can provide low-cost meat, milk and eggs due to efficient feeding and housing of animals, increased facility size and animal specialization, the report says.
Jefferson County has about 20 large scale livestock farms, according to a map available from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The map reflects information provided by local governments regarding the type of ordinance they have adopted such as zoning or licensing, the number of animals that trigger local permit requirements, and the size of each livestock operation issued a permit under a local ordinance.
The homeowners feel they don’t have any rights.
“Daybreak would always (at meetings and in communication) say we just want to be a good neighbor and that’s all we want them to be,” Stacy Weger said. “The board could have done a better job. They should have given Daybreak stipulations before the conveyor went up.”
“We asked them to remedy the issues, but they didn’t,” Hellekson said.
“We don’t have any rights,” Stacy Weger said.
“We have zero voice,” Hellekson agreed.
The neighbors talked about the issue with Rep. Barbara Dittrich who they said told them they should hire a lawyer.
“She said, ‘I can’t help you. Maybe you should seek an attorney,’” Daniel Weger said.
“The Right to Farm Law takes our rights and it provides more rights for a factory farm facility and we have nothing to say about it. We can call the sheriff, but they won’t write them a citation,” Daniel Weger said. “They might talk to them, but nobody does anything.”
“Unless we really find an excessive decibel reading we are stuck,” Miller said. “Those buildings and fans have all been permitted by a government agency including the town. I have not found a violation of that ordinance.”
Miller says they will still respond to complaints when they come in.
“I can be out there in five to seven minutes,” he said. “If we were getting consistent readings in the 70 and 80 decibel area and we start getting up there where it’s continuous I would consider issuing a ticket, even though there is an exception (for agriculture), because to me that would be excessive, but we haven’t had that yet.”
For the Hellekson’s the 80 acres they purchased at the end of 2016 was meant to be their forever home, an oasis for hunting and spending time with family and friends.
“We couldn’t open our windows before because of the stink, now we can’t open our windows because of the noise. How do we not have a say about that? Maybe they are working on it I don’t know,” Daniel Weger said. “But why wouldn’t you want to communicate that to us.”
For the homeowners the noise has caused anxiety and Hellekson says she also believes the wildlife on her 80 acres is significantly reduced since the new facility went up.
“I don’t think anyone should have to go through this,” she said. “We just want the peace and quiet we came here for.”