Five years ago, the proposed siting of a 10,000-head of dairy cattle Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) —the largest in Illinois history—in Jo Daviess County ignited controversy and divided the community. After initially avoiding the volatile issue, members of the League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County (LWV) held a day-long seminar on the history of dairy farming in Jo Daviess County to help explain the issue’s background and the stakes for the community. The seminar and the interest it generated within the League evolved into an effort to better understand the relationship between the area’s agriculture and its environment.
The county lies within the Driftless Area in the Midwest, a region characterized by rock formations with cracks close to the surface that leave the groundwater susceptible to contamination, linking the local CAFO controversy to larger regional and national environmental conservation issues. The LWV of Jo Daviess County has partnered with community organizations, government agencies, and other local leagues to improve education about water quality issues and foster solutions to these problems. The League’s ever-expanding efforts have included a survey conducted with the help of University of Wisconsin-Platteville students and an ongoing exploration into forming an inter-League Organization (ILO) with the LWV of Dubuque (IA) and the LWV of La Crosse (WI).
The League’s non-partisan and unbiased nature made it uniquely suited to bridge the divisions within the Jo Daviess community and identify areas to do constructive work. Instead of combativeness or argument, the League focused on a strategy of “science-based stewardship” and brought experts together to further study and explain the issues. At the seminar on dairy history, League members “really sought to understand the perspectives of all the people involved,” Bonnie Cox, president of the LWV of Jo Daviess County said. Afterward, League members continued to meet with people and groups advocating on both sides, placing emphasis on listening and understanding the facts.
Bonnie Cox, president of the LWV of Jo Daviess County, compared the League’s approach when developing partnerships to the watershed they study—crossing county, state, and partisan lines. “I think it’s a real opportunity for the League to get involved in contentious issues, but identify common ground and to get things done,” she said.