Poop is Pollution, Wisconsin Says

Insurance policies in Wisconsin won’t cover farmers’ manure liabilities, as this precious farm resource is now deemed a pollutant. Other states, watch out!

by Dani Yokhna

Poop is Pollution, Wisconsin Says - Photo by John Loo/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)

What a load of crap Wisconsin farmers are dealing with. The state’s highest court ruled manure found in wells neighboring a farm field as a pollutant—rather than a farm resource. General farm-insurance policies tend to rule out pollutants from their coverage, so if the manure from your farm causes a problem for someone else, you can be held responsible with no insurance safety net to catch you. You can fall into—or up, as they say—”Shit’s Creek” without a paddle.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court came to this decision because of a lawsuit from 2011 that alleged dairy farmers sprayed cow manure on a field and contaminated neighbors’ wells. (Incidentally, the farmers had a nutrient-management plan designed by a certified crop agronomist and approved by their county land and water conservation department.) The farmers’ insurance company said it didn’t have to pay because manure is a pollutant. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals said the insurance company did have to pay because manure is not a pollutant, but just now, the state supreme court reversed that decision. Imagine being the farmer who’s been put on this roller-coaster ride!

Poop: Friend or Foe?

The lawsuit points out that farmers don’t view manure as a pollutant, rather as a valuable resource. At this moment, it’s a giant liability. Now that Wisconsin has taken this stand, other states can follow. The insurance company doesn’t cover manure-related damage under the farm-chemical clause in its policy, because manure isn’t a chemical. And it doesn’t cover manure contamination of a well because at that point, manure becomes a pollutant.

I see where the insurance company is coming from—water pollution is caused by pollutants—but to not have manure covered in some form under a farm policy seems pretty ridiculous. Reading the language in the policy, though, it’s kind of obvious that manure isn’t covered. It says the company doesn’t pay for bodily injury or property damage if it results from “the actual, alleged, or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release, or escape of ‘pollutants’ into or upon land, water, or air.” And it defines “pollutant” as “any solid, liquid, gaseous, thermal, or radioactive irritant or contaminant, including acids, alkalis, chemicals, fumes, smoke, soot, vapor, and waste. ‘Waste’ includes materials to be recycled, reclaimed, or reconditioned, as well as disposed of.”

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Yep, we do refer to manure as waste.

Check Your Insurance!

We’re farmers, not lawyers. (Well, I’d imagine some of you are lawyers, but overall … ) This makes it really important for someone who understands the law and understands farming to look at your farm business documents, especially your insurance policies. These ag-lawyer/lawyer-farmer types are not always easy to come by, but you might know of one in your area, or you can find help through the American Agricultural Law Association, Farmers’ Legal Action Group or Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

Also, be smart about your manure management. (I’m not saying the farmers in this case weren’t smart about it—I know nothing about their individual situation. Clearly, they did at least some of what I’m about to suggest.)

  • Learn about how manure runoff effects the environment and water sources.
  • Work with your county conservation department or department of agriculture to develop a nutrient-management plan for your farm.
  • Employ responsible water-protection techniques like riparian buffers.
  • Get to know the sensitive environmental features on and near your farm.

If you’re doing these things, you’re on your way to keeping your farm safe and your neighbors happy. Tell me in the comments below, what manure-management hurdles have you experienced on your farm?

Learn more about manure management on HobbyFarms.com:

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