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Politics

Encouragement, Concern In Yankton Co. Over Gov. Noem's 'Streamlining' Permit Process Bill

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Lee Strubinger
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Governor Kristi Noem backs a legislative proposal that could change the state’s local zoning and appeals process.

Noem says it will streamline development in rural South Dakota—especially for wind farms and livestock operations.

That could affect Yankton County, where a number of largescale livestock farms have gone up. Residents are split over the future of that kind of agricultural development.

Karl Schenk walks through his newest building, a hog barn with 2,400 animals. The steady hum of the temperature control systems keeps the inside temperature at 65 degrees even on a cold winter  afternoon. The system even adds humidity to the air.

White pipes that look like PVC—stretch the length of the hog barn. They distribute feed to about 60 pens organized into two rows.

“They have feed 24 hours a day, they’re never without feed,” Schenk says. “Everything is monitored. If the feed starts to get low, we’re notified through our cellphones. We know the weight in the bins, at any time we can dial it up and see how much feed is on the premise.”

Light from industrial strength bulbs reflects off a lagoon below. The hog waste drains through slits in the floor.

“We keep about 35 pigs to a pen. As they grow and get larger, we’re throw into the empty pens you see here. So, they’re never overly dense," Schenk continues. "If you get overly dense, they’re not comfortable and they’re not gaining weight.”

Dozens of pigs stumble out of our way as we walk through the building.

“All these pigs are weighing about 55 pounds on average when they come in. As you can tell, they’re clean, they’re curious, they’re happy pigs," Schenk adds. "If they were outside today, where it’s 9 degrees, everything they would be eating would be just to maintain their body condition and to stay warm.”

Schenk’s been raising hogs like this for almost three years, and he wishes he had made the change earlier.
But the future of this kind of agricultural development has raised new questions in Yankton County. Since June of 2017, the county has approved 20 largescale livestock operations.

That’s the year, Schenk and three other farmers decided to expand. Schenk says they needed a critical mass of animals to get feed resources in Yankton County.

“We all came forward at the same time,” Schenk says. “Which, in hindsight, may have been a mistake. Maybe we should have done it individually. But, being good friends, we thought it would be wise to go into this together and see what happened. Because we needed to have some economies of scale with these barns."

A concentration of hog farms brings in contract opportunities with large companies. Schenk now works with Canadian-based Sunterra Farms.

“They are experts at what they do,” Schenk says. “So, we have refined this business, just like every other business in America, be it Amazon or Wal-Mart. They have found a very good formula, a very good model to make this work.”

Emily Radech is a member of the group Quality of Life For South Dakota.

“That picturesque view we have from the past of the farm. That’s going, and it’s because of this integrated model,” Radech says.

That group tracks the development of large livestock operations. Radech worries about the health and safety of nearby residents, the environmental consequences and declining property values that can come with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – also called CAFOs.

“It’s a shame, it’s a crying shame. It’s sad because it’s everyday life for us. Those of us that are advocating—and we’re not advocating against all CAFOs. That’s not it at all,” she adds. 

Radech lives about two miles away from the site of another proposed large scale hog operation. The local citizen’s group wants permits to include details designed to reduce the smell and distance from neighbors.

“If they’re sited correctly, away from water and away from neighbors, we have no problem with it," Radech says. "The only time we have a problem is when there’s three or four neighbors calling us and saying ‘please help us.’”

A bill the governor supports would shorten the zoning and appeal process at the county level. And, neighbors file a lawsuit against a farmer would have to pay court costs and damages if the farmer wins in court.

Zane Williams sits on the Yankton County Planning and Zoning Commission. He says the bill could be good for South Dakota.

“They might have some remorse if they have to pay for the other person’s legal bills. Otherwise it’s just a stamp—saying ‘I don’t like this,’" Williams says. "I think those days are going to go by.”

Williams is also chair of the Marindahl township board. It’s one of five townships that might withdraw from Yankton County. He says part of the reason is the county’s heavy-handed approach to largescale animal feedlot operations.  

The bill simplifies county approval for large livestock operations. It would require just a simple majority vote. That concerns Cheri Loest, chair of the Yankton County commission, which requires a 4/5ths approval. She says that decision is best left to counties.

“That should be left to the county’s discretion,” Loest says. “So, the word ‘shall’ shouldn’t be there. It should be the choice of the county for a conditional use approval.”

She’s one of three commissioners voted into office two years ago because of concern about large hog farms. Now, Loest is helping to rework the county’s zoning ordinance.

“It is not realistic to say we will never allow a confined animal feeding operation in Yankton County. It is not realistic. Everybody needs to come together and say, ‘This is a good path forward.’ No body is going to walk away winning the jackpot,” Loest says. “We’re all going to have a skinned knee by the end of the day.”

A Senate committee on state affairs is passing the bill along to the Senate floor. It still has to make its way through the House.
 

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