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Lalley: Farmers' call to action symbol of stakes in Sioux Falls slaughterhouse debate

Agriculture community perplexed by POET's opposition to Wholestone Farms' plans for pork processing plant in the city. A few farmers writing letters to newspapers to send a message to Jeff Broin, CEO of the biofuels producer, and to the voters.

POET CEO Jeff Broin stands for a portrait inside of his office at POET's Sioux Falls headquarters.
POET CEO Jeff Broin stands for a portrait inside of his office at POET's Sioux Falls headquarters.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — There’s a civil war playing out in South Dakota agriculture.

That may seem a bit overstated when talking about the debate over Wholestone Farms plans to build a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls.

After all, the primary question on the Nov. 8 ballot is one for voters within the city limits.

There is a broader conflict, however, playing out in the fields and farmyards surrounding the city.

Some producers see the vote as an existential threat that requires action.

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And it’s personal.

The ban backers are led and financed by POET.

The Sioux Falls-based company has built a biofuels behemoth with revenues reported at more than $8 billion a year. They did that with the full support and cooperation of the agriculture community across the Midwest.

It’s farmers who grow the corn for fuel and buy the dried distillers grain for feed.

It’s farmers who pooled their money to seed cooperatives to build ethanol plants.

And it was the clout of farm-state politicians that created the Renewable Fuels Standard, the lifeblood of alternative fuels writ large.

Wholestone Farms is a cooperative, owned by about 200 farm families, including about 75 within 50 miles of Sioux Falls.

Now, when farmers are close to realizing a long-sought dream of capturing more of the value of each pig raised and more control of their business, POET opposes them.

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In the agriculture community, that’s perplexing.

John Horters wants his fellow farmers to flex their business muscle. The Andover farmer wrote a letter to the editor, submitted to the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

“Friends and neighbors, we need to stop selling grain and buying DDGs from POET until they remember who made them a success,” the letter reads.

A couple hundred words in community newspapers across the state is admittedly one stone in a small sling. But Horter said in an interview that he felt like he needed to do something to draw attention to the issue.

“I sell 80% of my corn to the local POET plant,” he told me. “I feel this is something we can do to stand up and have our voices heard. The only way to get attention is to stand up for ourselves.”

Colton farmer Jeff Thompson also took up the pen and sent a letter to an area newspaper. Thompson points to the top of the organizational chart.

“Who is running POET?” he writes.

Which, of course, isn’t a secret: Jeff Broin, the company’s founder and CEO.

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But in conversations with Wholestone, the lawyers, farmers, spokespeople and business leaders who have lined up on each side of the slaughterhouse debate, rarely will anybody use Broin’s name.

Instead, they use generic phrases that insinuate without pointing the finger directly.

“There are certain individuals in town that don’t want us,” Sean Simpson, who is working with Wholestone on the project, said after a recent court hearing.

Jeff Broin doesn’t do interviews.

A company spokesperson sent this statement to my inquiry last week.

“POET remains dedicated to growing value-added agriculture across rural America, but as one of Sioux Falls' largest employers, we share the concerns citizens have voiced regarding odor, water, and quality of life issues in our city. POET does not oppose the project, just the location within city limits. We will continue to produce sustainable, high-quality feed ingredients for our valued customers in South Dakota, the U.S., and across the globe.”

That’s consistent with the message from the beginning. It’s not what, it’s where.

POET’s headquarters are a mile from the site.

So is Broin’s new house, an impressive looking structure in a new gated community in Cactus Heights.

“It’s ironic that he can build an ethanol plant near our farms and we don’t have a lot to say about it. We have to live with it,” Thompson told me. “Broin, through his connections, is trying to change the rules and sway voters.”

And that's personal.

MORE FROM PATRICK LALLEY:
Opponents of the ban focused attention on involvement of POET's leader, Jeff Broin. Shift in message personalized the outcome of the vote.

Opinion by Patrick Lalley
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at plalley@siouxfallslive.com.
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