Serial polluter seeks permit to expand Vernon County CAFO

Wild Rose Dairy LLC, a serial polluter in Vernon County that’s under investigation by state authorities, is seeking permission for a major expansion of its Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

Located near La Farge, Wild Rose was linked by state authorities to manure spills into Otter Creek, a classified trout stream, in 2017 and 2019, both of which resulted in significant fish kills. 

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has referred the company to the state’s Department of Justice for enforcement “related to previous discharge events and failing to timely submit a complete application for permit reissuance.” It’s understood that investigation is still ongoing.

Wild Rose’s Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit expired in 2015. That permit listed Wild Rose as a 1,000 animal unit dairy but the public notice detailing their application for renewal of their permit states that the CAFO currently has “1,784 animal units.” Now, as part of the renewal process, Wild Rose wants to expand its operations to “2,812 animal units” by 2022.

Despite the previous pollution and permitting issues involving Wild Rose, the DNR has “tentatively decided” that its “WPDES permit should be reissued,” according to a public notice released by the DNR Thursday. A virtual public hearing on Wild Rose’s permit request is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Oct. 13. Registration is required to attend. Details here.

The process for the issuance of the permit “does not resolve or in any way affect the outstanding enforcement action at the Department of Justice,” the DNR notes.

David Abt, an attorney who is the legal representative for the city of Westby and also Vernon County Corporation Counsel, is a co-owner of Wild Rose, which he founded with Arthur Thelen in 1998. 

Since its founding, Wild Rose Dairy LLC has received just under $1.2 million in farm subsidies, including $760,000 in corn subsidies, $289,000 in dairy subsidies and $28,000 in livestock subsidies, according to public records.

In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, sent a warning letter to Wild Rose that detailed issues with how animals were being handled at the CAFO. The letter noted that an FDA investigation found that Wild Rose was holding livestock “under conditions that are so inadequate that medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues are likely to enter the food supply.” 

Among the findings by federal investigators was that a dairy cow sold by Wild Rose had penicillin in its system that was far above the amount allowed by the FDA. However, the FDA later found that Wild Rose had corrected the issues noted in the investigation, according to a report from one of the agency’s compliance officers.

CAFOs pose a well-documented threat to water resources, which are especially important to the local economy in the Driftless Area, home to thousands of miles of spring-fed streams that support an abundant wild trout fishery.

A study by a University of Wisconsin – La Crosse economics professor estimated trout fishing brought more than $1.6 billion in tourism revenue to the Driftless Area in 2015 alone. The region covers southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and the extreme northwestern corner of Illinois.

By Eric Timmons. Email questions or story ideas to

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