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North Dakota needs ag processing. Let's make sure we're approving the right projects

We urge communities that are looking at potential ag processing facilities to give the projects a fair shake, but also to do the due diligence needed to make sure that it’s the right project, at the right time, in the right place, with the right partners.

Rows of corn and soybeans next to each other in a sunlit field on a summer day.
North Dakota needs ag processing to provide a local outlet for its crops, like corn and soybeans.
Agweek file photo.
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North Dakota could soon be experiencing big changes when it comes to where its ag products go.

For years, North Dakota has sent about 70% of its soybeans to the Pacific Northwest, bound for export. Nearly a quarter of the soybeans grown in the state have gone to other states for processing, while only about 6% have been processed in state, according to the North Dakota Soybean Council. Among the top 10 soybean producing states, only North Dakota has so little soybean processing.

That will likely change soon. ADM is reconstructing the former Cargill malt plant in Spiritwood, North Dakota, into a soybean processing plant . And North Dakota Soybean Processors — a group ran by Minnesota Soybean Processors and CBG Enterprises — plans to build another soybean plant in Casselton .

But the proposed Casselton plant has gotten some pushback from people who think it’s too close to town and have a host of other complaints related to traffic and noise concerns.

Meanwhile, a couple hours north, citizens of Grand Forks have pushed back against a planned corn wet milling plant proposed by Fufeng, a Chinese food processing company . The complaints in that situation include worries about smell and environmental impact, issues related to rural land being annexed into the city and concerns about a company with close ties to the Chinese government heading the project.

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North Dakota needs ag processing. We produce a lot of crops that have to leave to be made into their end products. And during the Trump administration’s trade war, we saw what can happen when you rely too heavily on exports. Soybeans had nowhere to go and prices plummeted.

Plus, processing plants can provide jobs, tax base and other positives for communities when done correctly. We’ve seen other types of industrial development, like the Amazon facility in Fargo, go up with little opposition.

Ag processing projects have to overcome “not-in-my-backyard” types, who will oppose any project that may even tangentially enter their lives, while welcoming projects elsewhere. That is a common issue everywhere, and when those types are nothing but vocal minorities, they should not be able to hold up a project.

However, these projects should not be welcomed with open arms until the governing bodies deciding whether to let them move in give them proper due diligence. We’ve seen in the past, in North Dakota and elsewhere, where companies can ride in on a white horse with a lot of promises but end up slinking out of town when things go wrong. Producers sometimes go unpaid and problems go unsolved. Sometimes, production plants have been salvaged by other companies; sometimes investments languish and buildings sit empty.

The government agencies that are tasked with deciding whether to allow ag processing plants have a big job to do. They need to make sure companies are stable and trustworthy. They need to make sure projects are viable. They need to make sure the environment and the people around sites are not harmed.

To that end, the North Dakota Soybean Processors supporters seem to be doing what they can to answer questions and assure it is a project that will help, not harm, Casselton and the surrounding area. They’ve answered questions and tried to offer solutions to problems.

On the other hand, red flags continue to pop up around the Fufeng project in Grand Forks. And those flags only grow bigger and brighter as city, economic development and company officials ignore complaints, slander opponents or refuse to answer questions.

We need ag processing, but going forward with the wrong projects may not only harm communities but also harm the chances of future projects being given the consideration they should get.

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We urge communities that are looking at potential ag processing facilities to give the projects a fair shake, but also to do the due diligence needed to make sure that it’s the right project, at the right time, in the right place, with the right partners. And if it’s the right project, it’s up to those in agriculture to show their support. Even if it isn’t going to directly affect your bottom line, a good ag processing project has the potential to lift up agriculture far beyond a given geography.

The Agweek Editorial Board consists of the editorial team at Agweek. Please refer any inquiries about editorials to news@agweek.com.

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