Farmers, Rural Residents Fight For Quality of Life Against “Big Pig”

South Dakota Pork Producers are celebrating this weekend with PorkPalooza in Sioux Falls, but not all South Dakota citizens are in on the party. Farmers, landowners, and rural residents are fighting “Big Pig” and the siting of numerous Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) across eastern and central South Dakota in an effort to protect their health, property values, and way of life.

Pastured hogs enjoy a treat and fresh air on Hyatt Family Farm in Northeastern SD.

In northeastern Brule County, farmers and homeowners are fighting a 7740-head Pipestone Systems swine confinement within 2 miles of several homes and businesses. During the planning & zoning commission hearing in the county seat of Chamberlain, commissioners were led to believe that so long as the permit application was complete, they were required to say yes. This, despite numerous–and recent–court decisions upholding counties’ broad authority to approve, approve with conditions, or deny such permits.

“The permit applicant also claimed that Pipestone had the legal right to run manure pipes across people’s private property in the right of way. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo that we killed that bill in the last legislative session,” says Rebecca Terk, organizer and lobbyist for Dakota Rural Action. “So, either they don’t know their own business, or they’re misleading commissioners–because Grant County is currently being sued for allowing Pipestone’s manure pipes to trespass on private property. I guess they’re not worried so long as the county pays the bill.”

The threat of a large hog confinement in close proximity to homes and businesses is a major concern for those threatened by this type of facility, but county requirements for a conditional use permit on largerCAFOs provide citizens a say in the process. The looming threat that most rural residents are not even aware of is that of the 2400-head swine barns being planned and built en masse in several counties in the state.

Only days ago, word came to Gregory County officials that Alberta, Canada-based SunTerra Farms Group plans to contract the building of four hog barns – swine nursery sheds – on a farm located near the County’s northern boundary just west of the Missouri River. Each shed would hold from 400 to 700 piglets, the combined total just under the number of swine allowed to stay below the 1000 animal unit ceiling specified in the County’s CAFO ordinance. Says Planning & Zoning Commissioner Robert Wirsing, “All it’s going to take to gain approval for the four swine nursery barns in Gregory County is a $10 building permit fee. No variance or conditional use permits are required. No public hearings either.”

“The County’s current zoning regulations provide it with no authority whatsoever to monitor facility waste disposal, toxic gases, odor controls, water consumption, or anything else pertaining to under-limit facilities. We have learned that SunTerra is planning dozens of barns in Turner County as well, and several other counties are seeing this same trend, or will be.”

These “under limit” facilities are designed by large, vertically-integrated corporations to fall under the threshold for most counties’ Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process. The vast majority of these facilities also do not require a permit from the state’s Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR), thereby avoiding oversight on construction, environmental impact, water quality assurance, and manure management. In many counties, as long as enough land is secured for the siting of the barn or barns to fulfill the county’s zoning setbacks (in some cases, a half mile or less from neighboring residences), the only “permission slip” required is a building permit.

This lack of public notice, hearing, or state oversight means that neighbors can literally wake up one morning to discover a CAFO being built next door. In some counties, dozens of barns are slated to be built through this process, bringing tens of thousands of hogs to an area with no discussion of how much water is being used, how much manure will be spread, or what the health impacts will be to rural residents. This process mirrors industry practice in Iowa, where over 700 impaired waterways and exploding costs to provide clean water to residents have strengthened the movement for a moratorium on new hog barn construction. In South Dakota, over 78% of rivers and streams are already impaired, primarily from the presence of fecal coliform and E. coli. Lake Mitchell’s water quality woes are likely due to an increase in hog confinements in the area and the spreading of high-phosphorus manure over tiled ground.

Meanwhile, farmers and landowners are being lured into contracts with the industry, promising good pay and a way to diversify their operations. However, with the Trump administration’s move to throw out the Farmer Fair Practice Rules that protect contract operators from unfair practices by the industry, those who sign such contracts have little recourse if their deal sours. “This rule that was thrown out by the Trump administration fills the swamp more,” said Senator John Tester in a speech to the Montana Farmers Union last year, “It allows corporate agriculture and international agribusiness to take advantage of folk in production agriculture. That’s the wrong direction to take.”

While the South Dakota Pork Producers are partying in Sioux Falls this weekend, the industry’s practices in this state and others stand to harm family farmers, landowners, and our rural communities. County officials need to take a close look at their current zoning regulations and take steps to curtail the unregulated growth of “Big Pig.” They need to evaluate their ordinances with regard to CAFO concentration and to determine at what concentration smaller unregulated CAFOs rise to a level where state and county oversight is appropriate.

Unlike Iowa, South Dakota retains local control, so that counties can decide what kind of development, where, and how much is a benefit to their citizens’ economic prosperity, property values, and quality of life. Now is the time to take a step back, engage with citizens in the process, and plan for that growth, rather than allowing industry to dictate the fate of our rural communities.

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