Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published September 19, 2011, 11:36 AM

Millner-related dairy near its blogger-critic

MADISON, S.D. — Rick Millner’s latest dairy adventure is in Ramona, S.D. — less than 10 miles from the home of one of his most publicly outspoken critics.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Editor’s note

Agweek last week began a two-part series about dairy businesses associated with Rick Millner, a Roseau, Minn., native and North Dakota State University graduate who has became a large and controversial player in the region’s dairy businesses, managing a collection of entities from Prairie Ridge Management in Veblen, S.D.

In the first part, Agweek told about Millner’s early personal and career history and how the charismatic Millner in 2000 was chosen to manage Multi-Community Cooperative Dairy, a 1,600-cow operation. The then-new cooperative investors included farmers in the prairie pothole area who simply had wanted better markets for their feed products.

Millner grew MCC into a collection of entities with some $150 million in assets and thousands of milking cows in several locations, all under his management. The management entity eventually became Prairie Ridge Management. He eventually gained some ownership, as well as ownership in businesses that would be linked with MCC as vendors.

Under Millner’s direction, MCC Dairy grew and developed links with dairies in Cottonwood, Hoffman and Thief River Falls in Minnesota.

It wasn’t long before some investors in the organizations were not happy with the fast-expanding enterprises and felt they had insufficient information about it. At MCC Dairy, the board eventually changed its leadership as some members questioned the movement of animals and finances among them. After the governance changed, Millner helped finance a new dairy, Veblen East, with large Korean investments. MCC changed to Veblen West.

Most of the dairies managed by Millner and his Prairie Ridge Management had occasional environmental infractions, but the most notable was at Excel Dairy in Thief River Falls. In 2008, market conditions with high feed cost and volatile milk prices, as well as the struggles with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, started the company in a whirlwind that ended with several of the entities seeking bankruptcy protection.

This week, we talk to the site manager for a new “calving facility” being started in Ramona, S.D., which — ironically — is eight miles from Madison, S.D., the home of Cory Heidelberger, who has been one of Millner’s most consistent and outspoken critics. We also offer a sidebar about the success of Cliff Viessman Inc., a substantial dairy and liquid food products trucking company based in Gary, S.D. Wayne Viesssman, the company’s chief executive officer, and several of his family members — individually, not as the company — have been investors in the Millner-managed dairy production enterprises, including the new one in Ramona, initially housing 500 to 700 animals and performing calving duties for dairies in Hoffman and in Milnor, N.D. Millner hints that that the vision for that site has “not been fully developed,” but that the Prairie Ridge Management Co. may be “on its way to winding down.”

- - - -

MADISON, S.D. — Rick Millner’s latest dairy adventure is in Ramona, S.D. — less than 10 miles from the home of one of his most publicly outspoken critics.

Cory Heidelberger, writer of the Madville Times blog, based in Madison, S.D., has been a persistent critic of Millner and his dairy operations.

The blog “The Madville Times” — http://madvilletimes.com — offers punditry on energy, political and agricultural matters in the Madison area, and in South Dakota in general. Heidelberger acknowledges he’s never been a fan of concentrated animal feeding operations. But since 2008, he’s taken particular interest in — and aim at — Millner’s operations, first his environmental practices at Excel Dairy in Thief River Falls, Minn., and later bankruptcies and other environmental matters in Veblen.

Lake County Dairy L.L.C. is about eight miles north of Madison, and managed by Prairie Ridge Management Co., a Veblen, S.D., an entity in which Millner is a majority shareholder. Full ownership isn’t listed, but two investors are Mike Wyum, a Rutland, N.D., farmer, and Wayne Viessman, CEO of a large trucking business some 85 miles away in Gary, S.D. Both have been board officers in far-flung dairy enterprises that have involved environmental and financial disputes in three states.

Wyum says he’s the chairman of the board of Lake County Dairy, but says he’s “not at all connected to Prairie Ridge,” but then refers details questions to Rick Millner at Prairie Ridge.

“He’s the one that I think probably has the biggest story to tell” because he’s “involved in all the management of the dairy, at the moment.” And does Rick Millner own any of the new dairy, or its cattle? “I honestly don’t know for sure,” Wyum says. “I don’t think so, but he’s the management of it.”

Viessman has declined several requests to discuss his involvement in dairies, emphasizing that any investments have been individual and not corporate investment by Cliff Viessman Inc., a trucking company for which he is chief executive officer.

Wyum, who for 10 years has been an officer in Veblen-area dairy entities — many that have filed bankruptcy or had other troubles — says the message in all of it is, “there have been some mistakes made, but there is a future in dairy. We’re trying to make the future a better one, trying to move forward.”

Heidelberger, 40, says it’s unbelievable that that future is happening in Ramona.

“It’s an unbelievable capping off of all of the connections. It’s challenging not to believe in fate when stuff like this happens,” he says.

“If anyone wrote a book about just the Veblen dairies, one would get a remarkably comprehensive picture of what’s wrong with agriculture,” Heidelberger says.

The South Dakota way

Heidelberger, who grew up in Madison, S.D., and whose family home is there, was adopted and is the oldest of three children of construction worker and homemaker. He graduated high school in 1989, thinking he’d like to teach and perhaps coach debate or fine arts. He went South Dakota State University, the state’s land grant agricultural college in Brookings. He graduated in 1994 with degrees in math and history.

Heidelberger taught for a year in Lemmon, S.D., and then traveled in Russia for a year and a half while doing graduate studies in Russian at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He taught in Edmonton, briefly, and then moved home to teach in Madison. He was fired from that job in 2001, he says, for physically confronting a bully.

In 2002, he married Brookings native Erin Weber and they lived on Lake Herman, S.D., next to town. He commuted 23 miles to a teaching job in Montrose, S.D., and took a leave in 2004 to ’05 to go to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she began graduate work in theology.

In summer 2005, after the couple moved back to Madison, Cory started to blog.

Most of Heidelberger’s posts were on energy and the environment, but also on the TransCanada Pipeline, and rural economic issues and CAFOs. Erin is an admirer of Wendell Berry, an author of the “Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.” Berry, a Kentucky farmer, is a hero in the “sustainable” agriculture set, and a foe of “industrial scale” agriculture.

“I wanted to write about things going on in Madison that maybe the media didn’t cover much,” Cory says. He worked on some Democratic state senate campaign, among other things.

A pundit’s point

In 2008, Heidelberger started writing about Excel Dairy in Thief River Falls and how its environmental breeches under Millner/Prairie Ridge Management were infringed on neighbors’ property rights. All of this became particularly relevant to his South Dakota theme when he discovered the dairy was connected to the Veblen dairies.

“Things kept happening,” he says, “They had their immigration issues in 2008,” referring to a raid in Veblen.

There were discussions of how the state was using the EB-5 visa program to finance dairies, about “big money over little money,” and the state promotion of large dairies. He’d post items two or three times a week, and — after bankruptcies in Veblen — he was fed documents by others who would watch the courts daily.

“In a way, it’s a lazy form of journalism,” Heidelberger acknowledges. “I’m the editor and I have all of these quasi-amateur reporters — snoops — sending things to Cory. I’m just sort of a filter.”

Beyond reporting, Heidelberger often would offer his own editorial opinion, usually very critical of Millner’s business practices.

“He seems to be an example of a businessman who uses every trick in the book, every twist in the law, to do whatever he wants,” Heidelberger says of Millner. “And if things go wrong, it’s not his fault — it’s the courts, the law’s fault, the regulators’ fault, the weather’s fault. It’s everybody’s fault but his.”

Heidelberger says it’s his impression that most people don’t want to take Millner on legally. For those who do, Millner hires expensive lawyers from Minneapolis or elsewhere to dominate the opposition, Heidelberger says.

“He’s willing to fight that fight longer and harder than most opponents will,” he says.

Still watching

In 2007, Heidelberger quit his Montrose job and took a graduate assistantship at Dakota State University in Madison, earning a master’s degree in May 2010. In January 2010, he became a member of the then-new Lake County Water Quality Committee, appointed by the county commission to advise them on water issues. The county has a half-time zoning/environmental officer, who works both in enforcement and environmental work.

A few weeks ago, the Heidelbergers moved to Spearfish, S.D., where Cory started teaching high school French. Despite the distance, Heidelberger is keeping close tabs on his new neighbors in Ramona.

He says he’s not against every large dairy. He says he realizes there is a 1,300-head dairy within two miles of the new Lake County Dairy L.L.C., but never has had cause to write about it.

“They’ve not come up on my radar or in the local papers,” he says.

Heidelberger says the Lake County Dairy is under a Class C zoning permit, allowing up to 1,000 animal units or some 700 head of full-grown cattle.

“If this thing goes to a Class B or Class A permit, which allows for more cattle, I’d have to email each of the commissioners and tell them they need to reread my blog about Veblen dairies. I’d think they’d want to think hard about whether they’d want to open that door.”

He’s s philosophical about the impact of a blog. Madville Times typically attracts up to 25,000 “visits” a month, with 45 to 60 page views per month. In August, he had 13,000 returning visits and 16,000 first-time visits.

Still, he guesses only a small percentage of people follow his writings.

“I’d say 99 percent of the people in South Dakota have no idea this stuff is being written — quite probably no idea about Millner,” he says. But he says that’s odd because — at one time — Millner-related dairies accounted for some 15 percent of the state’s dairy output.

Tags: