MCKENZIE, N.D. - Ellen Huber, director of economic development and communications for the city of Mandan, N.D., recently took a member of the Bismarck-Mandan Development Association up and down Memorial Highway in her city to talk to business owners about the impact of one of the city's most important businesses: Kist Livestock.

"Time and time again in our business visits, we found that businesses said that they were located on Memorial Highway because Kist Livestock is there, and it would be the worst thing possible for their business if that livestock auction market were to go away," she said.

That included not just traditional agribusinesses but also places like Open Road Honda. Visitors were surprised to learn that while the business sells motorcycles, their core business is more focused on the ATVs purchased by ranchers as tools. Those ranchers often are nearby for a sale at Kist.

As people become more disengaged from agriculture, Huber said it's important to communicate the economic benefits of livestock development, whether it's an auction yard, a feedlot, a pig barn or a dairy.

"No longer can we take for granted that people had any ties to a farm or ranch themselves and that they understand the source of their food and the process it goes through," she said.

Huber spoke on a panel on livestock development and communities at the North Dakota Livestock Alliance's second annual Livestock Summit at Black Leg Ranch south of McKenzie on Tuesday, Jan. 14. Joining Huber on the panel were Kenton Holle, NDLA director and a dairy farmer in Morton County, Larry Syverson, executive director of the North Dakota Township Officers Association, and Pat Copenhaver, Foster County Commissioner.

Huber said Morton County remains the top beef and dairy county in North Dakota, even as the cities of Mandan and neighboring Bismarck continue to expand. Explaining the benefits of businesses like Kist or Cloverdale Meats, another Mandan institution, is neverending, she said.

Some of that involves educating people about how technology and progress have changed agriculture. Holle said people expect that farms operate the same way they did in the past.

"You don't drive the same kind of car your grandpa did," he said.

Syverson said good operators can create good feelings about animal agriculture, but what he has seen time and again is the lingering bad feelings from a bad operator. That means people have to work to make sure their community understands an animal agriculture project before, during and after construction.

Copenhaver sold land to what would become Van Bedaf Dairy near Carrington, N.D. When plans for that operation became known, people were concerned about odors and other issues. The way the Van Bedaf family has operated the dairy and become involved in the community has changed public reaction; Copenhaver said he never hears complaints about the dairy anymore.

While townships in North Dakota can regulate animal agriculture, Syverson said few do, leaving regulation largely at the county level. The panelists stressed the importance of discussing possible projects with zoning officials, economic development officials, civic organizations and more from the early stages. Having fact sheets of accurate, up-to-date information available can go a long way in demystifying a project.

Holle said opening up to the public also helps. His farm, Northern Lights Dairy, and the Van Bedafs switch off years of holding public events to show people how modern dairies work.

Because of biosecurity concerns, not all operations can open their doors to the public. But Bob Thaler, South Dakota State University Extension swine specialist, explained that SDSU has helped overcome that by having students conduct live virtual tours of a swine unit at the university. It's gone from 15 tours in 2018 to 30 in 2019, and this year they expect to do at least 60.

The tours show people that while not everything is perfect, livestock producers are focused on the health of their animals, he said. It provides an opportunity to explain farrowing, gestation, feed and health protocols and more. Providing that education, whether to communities or culinary institutes, has helped grow the South Dakota pork industry. They've seen double-digit growth in sow and finishing numbers in the past few years.

"We're now No. 8 in the nation in market hogs, which has never happened before," he said.