Opponents claim Buffalo hog farm 'not done in daylight,' as state ag officials knew year in advance
FARGO - Backers of the planned Rolling Green Family Farms swine operation in rural Cass County cited North Dakota's "favorable permitting process controlled at the state level" in pitching their project last year at a state livestock summit.
FARGO – Backers of the planned Rolling Green Family Farms swine operation in rural Cass County cited North Dakota's "favorable permitting process controlled at the state level" in pitching their project last year at a state livestock summit.
Records obtained through open records requests show that officials from the state Department of Agriculture worked behind the scenes to help Rolling Green Family Farms secure an environmental permit for the 9,000-hog farm for almost a year before the public was notified of the proposal.
State agriculture officials were made aware that Pipestone Holdings was meeting with landowners near Buffalo in January 2015, months ahead of the Dec. 26, 2015, public notice for the hog farm sent out by state health officials.
Health officials will conduct a hearing Thursday, March 17 in Buffalo to gather comments before deciding whether to grant a permit.
Agriculture officials were in regular contact with representatives of Rolling Green Family Farms, providing updates on progress, including the status of the permit application.
Despite the state's regular communication with the proposed hog farm's representatives, most residents in and around Buffalo didn't learn of the project until the town's mayor heard about it by happenstance and called a public meeting in January.
"It wasn't done in the daylight," said Derrick Braaten, a lawyer who represents property owners who oppose to the hog farm. "To the extent the ag department thinks this is a wonderful thing, I would have thought they'd be promoting it."
Braaten isn't accusing ag officials of trying to keep the proposal a secret. "But the circumstances point to everybody having a shared opinion that that should happen."
By keeping the project quiet until a permit was in hand, agriculture officials and representatives of the hog farm could avoid the outcry from neighbors who routinely oppose concentrated animal feeding operations, he said.
Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said his staff routinely provides information and assistance to farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses looking to locate or expand in the state, but does not ballyhoo those efforts.
"I don't think we were quiet about anything," he said. "It's not our place to get out in front of people's projects."
After the informal January public meeting in Buffalo, an executive with Pipestone Holdings, the firm in Pipestone, Minn., that is the driving force behind Rolling Green Family Farms, sent an email to a state agriculture official with a summary of the meeting.
Residents raised concerns about possible health and environmental problems from the hog manure, which would be collected in large volumes and be spread around neighboring farm fields as fertilizer.
"There were many fear tactics used and little data/facts," Barry Kerkaert, a vice president with Pipestone Holdings, wrote in an email forwarded to ag officials. "That Said the meeting went about as well as it could have from my perspective," he added, noting that he expected the permit to be granted.
A flurry of emails between Pipestone Holdings and agriculture officials were exchanged in October 2015, with health officials asking if the application complied with the state's ban on corporate farming.
In fact, Goehring's Agriculture Department was recruiting Pipestone Holdings and other major livestock producers while the agency was pushing successfully for legislation last year to allow exemptions for swine and dairy operations-a law change now on hold pending a statewide vote on it during June's primary election.
Rolling Green Family Farms is organized as a limited liability partnership, with farmer-investors from Minnesota and Iowa as owners. That ownership form means it could operate regardless of the outcome of the June vote over whether to uphold exemptions to the state's law restricting corporate farming.
North Dakota agriculture officials apparently were eager to hold up Rolling Green Family Farms as a showcase for their efforts to boost the state's lagging livestock industry, Braaten said.