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Big veterinary clinic behind planned hog farm in Buffalo, N.D.

FARGO - The driving force behind a proposed swine factory farm in rural Cass County is a large veterinary practice that has flourished by managing operations and acting as a consultant for farmers banding together.

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Pigs. iStockphoto.com

FARGO – The driving force behind a proposed swine factory farm in rural Cass County is a large veterinary practice that has flourished by managing operations and acting as a consultant for farmers banding together.

Pipestone Holdings, which is seeking to build Rolling Green Family Farm near Buffalo, is the parent company of Pipestone Veterinary Services, based in Pipestone, Minn. If approved, the farm would have 9,000 hogs and would be the first large swine factory farm in the area.

Pipestone Veterinary Services touts its Pipestone System , which has grown to become one of the nation's largest hog producers, operating as a network of partnerships with farmer-shareholders in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa.

"We are the single largest system coordinating independent farmers in the world," said Barry Kerkaert, a veterinarian with Pipestone who is a swine specialist. "Not only in the United States, but in the world," a model that now is being replicated.

Pipestone System started 25 years ago with 36 shareholders and one barn with 600 sows. Now it has more than 450 shareholders, and manages 50 sow barns in the Midwest, with more than 200,000 sows producing 6 million pigs yearly.

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"We're managing those farms," Kerkaert said. "If we don't to it, these farmers there are just another statistic because they can't do it individually."

Pipestone's veterinary and management services enable farmers to produce "high-health, weaned pigs" that are competitive in today's capital-intensive livestock industry, he said.

Neighbors in and around Buffalo who are concerned about odors and possible health risks fear that Rolling Green Family Farm could be just the beginning, the hub of more swine farms to come, including finishing barns, said Gerald Marcks, himself a farmer.

"I think it's just a springing board for more to come," he said.

Pipestone does not have plans for more farms in the area because no farmers in the area have come forward for a project, Kerkaert said.

"There are no plans for more pig farms, he said. "I hope this triggers more interest."

Operations like Rolling Green Family Farm are being pushed by officials including Doug Goehring, North Dakota agriculture commissioner, as a way to boost the state's lagging livestock industry.

But the large farms spark complaints from neighbors-including property owners in and around Buffalo, located about 43 miles west of Fargo-who are worried about odors and other nuisances, and health and environmental concerns.

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Between 14 and 16 farmers banded together to form Rolling Green Family Farm, most of them from Minnesota and Iowa, Kerkaert said. They will ship the piglets to their farms to be finished for market, he said.

The swine farm will also have a few investors from eastern North Dakota, but they are not pig farmers, Kerkaert said.

Rolling Green Family Farm is a limited liability partnership, and therefore is legal regardless of new exemptions to North Dakota's law banning corporate farms.

The exemptions, passed last year by legislators, allow corporate swine and dairy operations. Voters will decide whether to uphold or discard those exemptions in the June primary election. Pipestone Veterinary Services has been an advocate for corporate farming as a way to boost the livestock industry.

Kerkaert spoke at a panel discussion last June in Bismarck exploring ways to support livestock agriculture in North Dakota.

Noting that Pipestone Holdings was looking for a site in southeast North Dakota for a sow farm within the next year-presumably Rolling Green Family Farm-Kerkaert said some of its farmers are organized as corporations and thus wouldn't be able to invest in North Dakota as a family farm corporation if the corporate farming exemptions didn't become effective.

Pipestone Veterinary Services has expanded significantly along with the shift in recent decades from traditional, small livestock farming to the corporate, factory farm model that offers efficiencies and economies of scale.

Two veterinarians joined in 1944 to found the Pipestone Veterinary Clinic. A third veterinarian joined the clinic in 1960. The enterprise today has grown to 27 veterinarians at clinics in Pipestone as well as two in Iowa.

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The Pipestone System was established in 1988, and two years later built its first swine operation with 700 sows. Besides swine, Pipestone Veterinary Services treats other livestock, including sheep, and beef and dairy herds and companion animals.

Although Pipestone Veterinary Services does "work and consult internationally," no Chinese or other foreign investors are involved in Rolling Green Family Farm, Kerkaert said.

Global Ventures, a now-defunct company once affiliated with Pipestone, was embroiled in a public corruption scandal in the early 2000s. Gordon Spronk, a veterinarian with Pipestone Veterinary Services and a co-founder of Pipestone System, admitted making false statements on a loan for Global Ventures. As recompense, Spronk agreed to pay $425,000 to public entities. He remains a veterinarian with Pipestone.

Marcks said the scandal calls into question the integrity of those spearheading the hog farm near Buffalo.

"It makes you question it, as to the people involved," he said. "If they were operating in the gray in some of these other business dealings, what do we know what's going on here?"

Global Ventures was an independent business, and Spronk paid his penalties, Kerkaert said. He said that matter has no bearing on anything to do with Rolling Green Family Farm.

"That company made mistakes," Kerkaert said. "Our ownership today is different than it was then."

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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