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Lalley: From dirt to ballot to court, the long and likely road for pork plant

Influential forces intersect in potential ban of future slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls. Emergence of Gov. Kristi Noem in the debate demonstrates what's at stake when city residents vote in November.

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Wholestone Farms has started construction on a custom butchery on the site where they are planning a facility to process 6 million hogs each year.
Patrick Lalley
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SIOUX FALLS — Just off Interstate 229 in northeast Sioux Falls is a hump of earth covered by prairie grass.

The thousands of Sioux Falls commuters who pass by each day to the many offices and factories in the area probably don’t give it a second look. It’s just another molehill along another stretch of freeway.

What they can’t see, just over the rise, are workers building a mountain.

The name of the mountain depends on your perspective.

Mount Money, from the economic development, value-added agriculture and an expanding tax base for Sioux Falls.

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Or Disaster Peak, from the smell of pigs, potential water pollution and the inevitable crush of traffic.

This is the site where Wholestone Farms is taking the first steps toward building a state-of-the-art pork processing facility. Up to 6 million of the critters each year will walk in one end as fully grown hogs and pop out the other as ham, hot dogs and whatever else one makes from pigs.

Today, there is just the curb and gutter and a gravel road passing a spot where crews carved out a section of the hill to build a small customer butchery. When it’s finished, the farmer members of the Wholestone Farms co-op will be able to bring a pig or two for slaughter and processing.

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Construction at the site of the Wholestone Farms pork processing plant at Interstate 229 and Benson Road in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Patrick Lalley

But if the scope of the butchery is small, the mountain of controversy it represents is only beginning to grow.

Whether or not the company can continue the work is a question that will play out at the ballot box in November and, if history is any guide, the courts.

Beyond the specific questions about zoning and the definition of “slaughterhouse” is a larger issue about how Sioux Falls develops, how the city supports the vast economic and cultural giant of agriculture and whether the promise of technology can erase decades of experience for the residents of Sioux Falls.

Over the coming weeks, Sioux Falls voters will entertain perspectives from Wholestone’s members, 75 of whom live within 50 miles of the city, and Smart Growth Sioux Falls, the group that formed to oppose the development.

The basic question on the ballot is whether Sioux Falls should stop any future slaughterhouses from building in the city. The gut reaction of most residents is probably yes.

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That’s because we’ve been stuck with the behemoth that is Smithfield, plopped next to our namesake waterfalls by the forces of geography and necessity, for more than 100 years.

Nobody would do that today, of course.

Growing up here, it was called John Morrell and Co.

“The Plant” meant jobs that supported our families, that built homes and a legacy of hard work breeding a tolerable way of life.

But it smelled. Real bad.

I tell people all the time — and no one believes me — that it used to be worse.

There have been improvements to the old plant, but it’s old and inefficient and if they could have built a new one, they probably would have.

It was never as easy as that.

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Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Remember that we lost a governor and several top business leaders to a plane crash in 1993 while on a mission to convince Chiquita, the company that owned John Morrell, not to close the plant. The jobs were that valuable to the city. The market was that valuable to our pork producers.

And it still is, which is why current Gov. Kristi Noem took to the radio waves during a trip to Sioux Falls on Tuesday, making the case for why voters shouldn’t get in the way of Wholestone.

They’ve done what they were supposed to, the governor said. They got all their permits, filed all the paperwork and followed all the rules, only to have opposition arise at the last minute.

That’s not good for Sioux Falls and it’s not good for South Dakota, she said in an interview with Bill Zortman on KELO-AM.

“You pass a ballot measure like that down here, that puts every single project we do in South Dakota in jeopardy in the future. That means every company in the state from now on knows that I can meet all the requirements, I can plan, I can do everything right, and at the last minute, one person can get mad, do a ballot petition, and end my investment and my business.”

To be clear, it was essentially an open mic for the governor.

Zortman, while a cool dude and good person, isn’t a journalist. There were no questions challenging the governor’s assertions. There’s some hyperbole in her words, to be sure.

But her comments highlight the curious nature of this issue.

Specifically, when Noem says “one person can get mad,” she wasn’t trying to be theoretical. She’s talking about Jeff Broin, the founder and CEO of the POET , whose home is 1.5 miles in one direction from the site and corporate headquarters is about 2 miles in the other.

You pass a ballot measure like that down here, that puts every single project we do in South Dakota in jeopardy in the future.
Gov. Kristi Noem

POET, the world’s largest producer of biofuels, is one of 57 businesses and organizations that signed on to a letter opposing Wholestone’s plans.

The company’s involvement in the ban disturbs farmers who sell corn to POET to make fuel, and then buy back distillers grain to feed livestock. Commodity groups such as the Pork Producers and Soybean Association are among the most influential political forces in the state. The degree to which those groups influence Noem is known only to the governor.

When it comes to influence on the other side we’ll find out more about who is funding the Smart Growth Sioux Falls on Tuesday, Sept. 6, when the first campaign finance disclosures are filed with the city.

The discussion is just beginning but it’s a big enough deal that the governor has a position.

And last week the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce also came out against the ban.

But do the people of Sioux Falls, normal everyday people who don’t live or work near the Wholestone site really care? Will they balance the needs of the broader economy of the region against the potential for odor and all the rest?

Will they take the time to understand new technology?

Do they enjoy a pulled pork sandwich?

If the average voter closes their eyes and all they see is Smithfield, it’s a tough sell.

Wholestone isn’t waiting to find out.

The company believes the work at the molehill is the legal foundation they need to build Mount Money, even if the proposed ordinance passes in November.

Is that true? Well, that’s where the lawyers usually come in.

MORE FROM PATRICK LALLEY:
Footage includes progress on a small butcher shop and proximity to nearby businesses and landmarks. Sioux Falls voters will decide whether to ban future slaughterhouse in the city on Nov. 8.

Opinion by Patrick Lalley
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for the Forum News Service in Sioux Falls. Reach him at plalley@forumcomm.com.
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