19 March 2014

Liquid Gold?

While reading the most recent issue of The Wisconsin Lawyer I was amused to read the summary of a recent decision by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Wilson Mutual Insurance Co. v. Falk, 352 Wis.2d 461 (2013) and its description of a certain common farm by-product as "liquid gold."

I spent large portion of the summers of my youth helping on the dairy farms of several of my uncles. I'd bring the cows in from their pastures early in the morning. I'd assist with milking. And, most pungently, I'd clean the barn floor after milking was done. Yet I never thought to characterize the warm deposits left by upwards of 50 cows as liquid gold. (A regularly barefoot cousin who enjoyed squeezing the substance between his toes might have disagreed; but I digress.)

Manure was and still is a significant source of fertilizer in America. In other parts of the world it's an important fuel. The problem in America is that increasingly large dairy operations generate far more waste than is necessary for a farmer's crops. Indeed, many dairy operators don't engage in farming at all and so must find alternative means for disposal.

The Wisconsin farmer found himself in trouble with the state Department of Natural Resources, which claimed that the spreading of manure on his farm was contaminating the supply of ground water. His insurer denied coverage on the ground that manure was a "pollutant" that was excluded from coverage. The appellate courts said, to the contrary, that manure was "liquid gold" and anything but a pollutant. Thus, the insurer was required to defend and indemnify the farmer.

A silly case? Or the unfortunate effect of the almost fully industrialized nature of what is still called farming? Farming has long since ceased to be the bucolic profession of yesteryear. And what is now the multi-generational disconnect between food consumption and food production only exacerbates the public policy ignorance of voters and those who legislate and regulate agriculture.

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