Small Hog Confinement Brings Unknown To Gregory County

Aug 29, 2018

Pork production in South Dakota has risen by almost 25 percent in the last decade. The South Dakota Pork Producers Council says that’s due in large part to an increased number of hog confinements in the state.

That includes projects like a proposed nursery operation in south central South Dakota.

Gregory County sits on the southern state line, the Missouri River carving its eastern border. Here, on a flat lot north of the town of Lucas, construction for four buildings is proposed. Each will stand 60 feet by 140. That’s as long as George Washington’s head on Mt Rushmore, and as wide as three semi trailers set end-to-end.

David Gnirk and Lucas Adams are spearheading the project north of Burke, and it’s expected to cost $1 million to construct. The buildings are projected to hold a total of 2,800 piglets.

They’re called nursery operations. This operation partners with a Canadian-based company, Sunterra Farms. Sunterra owns the piglets; Gnirk and Adams manage the structures.

After a piglets reaches 45 pounds, Sunterra moves the piglets for the next phase of life. The buildings are cleaned and the next round of piglets arrive. The operation looks like concentrated animal feeding operations—or CAFOs—that are popping up across eastern South Dakota.

After repeated attempts, David Gnirk and Lucas Adams could not be reached for comment on this story; however, the Gnirks recently updated the Gregory County Commission about their project.

“The buildings are going to look like machine sheds.”

Casey Burrus is the Planning and Zoning Administrator for Gregory County. It’s one of the first hog operations west of the Missouri River.

“Which, it’s really nice that they told us what’s going to be in them, because without it being a class A or B CAFO, they could have just been like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re just building four machine sheds.’ That would have been it.”

That’s because the Gnirk’s piglet-raising operation is small enough that it doesn’t require a permit from the state. The county has that same threshold, so no paperwork there either. A nursery for swine less than 55 pounds can hold just under 10,000 piglets before anyone needs to secure a permit.

Kent Woodmansey is the Natural Resources Engineering Director for the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He says the state inspects those smaller operations on a complaint basis, which means they inspect an operation when someone suspects a business is skirting environmental rules.  
“We have had some of those facilities that the county has required that they get our permit as part of the zoning process, even though they’re below the threshold,” Woodmansey says. “We have seen those come in for and get our permit. There are other ones out there that we don’t have a lot of information on because they’re below that threshold for being a concentrated animal feeding operation.”

That’s the case in Gregory County, where Gnirk and Adams pulled only what the government requires - a building permit. It cost them 10 dollars.

Robert and Nancy Wirsing live just outside of the town of Gregory.

Nancy’s mother’s side of the family came to South Dakota at the beginning of the 20th century.

“They came to Bonesteel,” Nancy says. “And on the basis of a lottery, my grandmother got a number.”

The Wirsings in their garden
Credit Lee Strubinger / SDPB

Nancy grew up on the family farm before leaving for college in Denver. That’s where she met Robert. The Wirsings lived all over from South Carolina to Qatar. She says she was gone for 30 years before the couple came back to Gregory to settle down.

Now they live about 10 miles, as the crow flies, from the proposed nursery operation. They’re concerned about how the piglet nursery operation could affect the future of the county. Robert sits on the Gregory County Planning Commission. He says because the project required only a building permit no one in the area had an opportunity to provide input.

“These very large corporate animal feeding operations have learned a lesson in this and adjoining states that they can avoid a whole lot of public complaint and legal hasseling, and so forth, by introducing under limit feeding operations,” Robert says.

The Wirsings worry about environmental impacts and health effects. They say they moved backed to Gregory County for a quality of life not found in larger cities. That quality of life, they say, is under threat with the trend of concentrated animal feeding operations.

Pigs produce a lot of waste. According to research out of Clemson University, one piglet of thirty pounds produces just over a pound and a half of excrement a day.

Myron Johnson is chair of the county commission in Gregory County. He says the nursery operation is economic progress for the small county, but he acknowledges the potential stench of that growth.

“I guess I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Johnson says. “Would I want pig farm next to my house? Probably not.”

Johnson says most of the concern he hears about the project is from neighbors of the operation. He says people question smells and traffic.

Gregory County’s Casey Burrus says Gnirk and Adams signed a 12-year contract with Sunterra Farms to run this nursery operation.

She says locals in Gregory County are keeping an eye on the project to see if it brings the family prosperity.

“I can see where they will be watching to see if – okay they were able to buy a new vehicle or their kids are always looking nice, with nice new clothes, or they’re going to see how their living standard is and look at this as an option.”

Meanwhile, Gregory County is examining at how other counties permit concentrated animal operations and update its code.