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Doug Yankton, vice chairman of the Spirit Lake Nation, testifies on Sept. 12, 2018, in opposition to a state health permit for the Grand Prairie Agriculture LLP at the Spirit Lake Resort and Casino, comparing the proposed sow barn to a “concentration camp” for animals. Photo taken at Devils Lake, N.D. (Mikkel Pates/Agweek)

Critics and supporters speak out on pig farm proposed near Devils Lake

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — A two-stage hearing on a proposed pig farm about 1 mile from the 95,000-acre Devils Lake brought out impassioned concerns and threats of lawsuits from Spirit Lake Tribe and others.

Nearly 300 people attended the first part of the 1 p.m. hearing at the Spirit Lake Casino in rural St. Michael, N.D., including school students. Another 300 attended a second hearing at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D.

The farm is 10 miles west and 1 mile north of the city of Devils Lake. The Grand Prairie Agriculture LLP site is planned as a sow farm that would include 2,079 gestating sows of average weight of 380 pounds and another 420 farrowing sows and would produce about 72,000 isowean piglets shipped at 12 pounds. If built, the farm would provide piglets to about 10 farms, probably in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa for finishing, promoters say.

Karl Rockeman, director of the water quality division for the North Dakota Department of Health, led both hearings, taking questions but promising to answer questions later by mail and post answers on the agency website. Rockeman said a decision could come in 60 to 90 days, but it could take longer.

Owners of the Grand Prairie Agriculture site are Taylor Aasmundstad, a farmer who is the son of former North Dakota Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad. Daniel Julson, a Wahpeton, N.D., accountant, is another partner. Neither of the two managing partners testified on the permit.

Leaders of animal agriculture groups in North Dakota, including North Dakota Pork Council President Kevin Blake and North Dakota Stockmen's Association environmental services director Scott Ressler, all urged the department to approve the permit.

No violations

Craig Jarolimek, chairman of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, said "to my knowledge there has not been a violation" for any large animal farm in the state. Animal handling and veterinary rules are in place to ensure a safe food supply, he said. Nathan Pesta, a senior project agricultural engineer from Bismarck, said he's organized "hundreds of these farms, and none of them are leaking."

"I believe in agricultural stewardship, and I believe in animal stewardship," he said.

But critics drew bigger applause.

"Mr. Aasmundstad, it's not wanted here!" said Mary Senger of Devils Lake. "I know more about pig feces than I know about my own feces."

Spirit Lake Tribe Vice Chairman Douglas Yankton, of Ft. Totten, N.D., criticized the project while saying he wasn't opposed to hog farming. The tribe has about 5,500 members.

Yankton also said he was "tired of the state ... overrunning the tribal nations of North Dakota."

The tribe has hired Robins Kaplan law firm of Minneapolis to try and prevent the pig farm. Tim Purdon, a former North Dakota U.S. Attorney under the Obama administration, is working on the case from an office in Bismarck. Purdon said the tribe is prepared to file injunctions to stop the project.

Several people testified from a Buffalo, N.D., group, opposing a hog farm there. Randy Coon, an agricultural economist from Buffalo, N.D., said he'd done a study that he said indicated that the hog smell from the farm undermines $174 million in direct recreational activities and a total of $432 million the "multiplier effect" is considered.

Coon, who works for North Dakota State University, clarified in his comments that he was there on his own, not representing the university.

'Emotion outweighs science'

Pete Hanebutt, public policy director for North Dakota Farm Bureau, said modern manure management provides benefits and eliminates odor. He said if "emotion outweighs science" it could "send a message to production agriculture that livestock operations are not welcome in North Dakota."

Rockeman said he's had some "conversations with some of the members of the Spirit Lake tribal government." He said the consultation isn't just a "box to check but is really about building relationships and we'll be working on that." He said there was a public meeting on the topic in the Devils Lake area about a year ago.

The owners of the pig farm have talked with Pipestone Systems, a veterinary and management firm from Pipestone, Minn., about managing the farm but have not contracted with them. The permit would allow the farm to spread manure nutrients on 1,845 acres of surrounding farmland, which farmers welcome as a high-value fertilizer. There is a 100-foot setback from the lake for manure application, which is set by the North Dakota Department of Health.

Much of the testimony involved whether the manure or compost from deceased animals might harm Devils Lake itself or aquifers, which are as close as 17 feet below the bottom of the floor of the plan. Some of the criticism involved the future safety of concrete tanks. The farm would be held in tanks with 270 days of holding capacity.

Ressler testified in favor of the farm and pointed out that the North Dakota Health Department also governs the safety of municipal facilities, which sometimes must release waste untreated into rivers.

An earlier version of this story included the word "you're" instead of the word "it's" in the quote from Mary Senger. Upon review of the state recording of testimony of the hearing, we have updated the story. We regret the error.