By PHIL CAUTHON
KHI News Service
GREELEY COUNTY — Western Kansas farmer Danny Peter committed what some in rural Kansas consider a cardinal sin: He sold his land to a big corporation so it could build a huge hog farm; biggest in the state, in fact.
“We’ve got a couple neighbors that aren’t very happy. But they aren’t paying my bills,” said Peter, who lives 12 miles north of Tribune in Greeley County.
“As long as they’re controlling the waste, the smell isn’t that bad,” Peter said. “But I guarantee you that anyone living down windfall is going to have some smelly days.”
In 2010, the Greeley County commission voted to approve Seaboard Farms’ request to build a 132,000-hog facility. Seaboard is one of the world’s largest producers and packers of pork. That was the same year Peter sold his ground to the food, transportation and energy giant.
Seaboard, which is headquartered in Shawnee Mission, is among the companies that could possibly benefit from a controversial proposal to relax Kansas laws on corporate agriculture.
Currently, Seaboard and others like it must get permission from county commissioners or win approval from residents at the ballot box before building the massive confined animal operations that in the past few decades have come to dominate U.S. meat production.
Last year the Department of Agriculture and the state’s top ag lobbyists began urging legislators to remove those hurdles while making other changes to the law, saying that would help spur jobs and economic growth.
Though that effort will continue, administration officials and major ag industry lobbyists now say they will not attempt to change the law this year.
“The agency does not intend to pursue consideration of the bills. The ruling from the judicial council deserves full consideration before acting,” said Acting Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey in an email to KHI News Service.
McClaskey was referring to a forthcoming recommendation to the Legislature from the Kansas Judicial Council on existing corporate agriculture law.
An advisory committee to the council spent several months in the fall reviewing corporate farming laws at the request of Rep. Sharon Schwartz, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Larry Powell, the Garden City Republican who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
The advisory committee issued a report to the council Dec. 6. The report recommends that Kansas’ corporate ag law be modified to avoid potential conflict with federal interstate commerce laws, but stops short of the sweeping changes sought by the ag department and lobbyists.
Schwartz, one of eight people on the council’s advisory committee, said she plans to discuss the report during the House agriculture committee meeting on Tuesday.
“It will be interesting to see if (the report) generates interest, but at this point in time I don’t see the interest in making any changes. I haven’t really polled the committee, so we’ll see,” said Schwartz, whose family farms several crops and is part of a medium-sized swine cooperative in Washington County.
“Unless there’s a huge push for it, which I haven’t seen at this point in time…it may just sit here. It would have to have the support of the community or from people who have pushed to make a change,” she said.
Change in approach
The Kansas Farm Bureau is one of the major farm groups that pushed last year for passage of corporate farming changes via House Bill 2404 and its upper-chamber counterpart, Senate Bill 191.
Terry Holdren, chief executive and general counsel for the Farm Bureau, said the group still strongly supports the bills, but is taking a new tack this session.
“We have strong interest in continuing to talk about and pursue some sort of fix to the statute,” Holdren said. “I think one of the things we learned last year, and what you’ll see this year, is a stronger effort to lay some groundwork in educating the Legislature about this issue. We had such massive turnover after the last election that there are a lot of folks who have never really experienced this issue.
“This has a lot of history that we all saw last year, and a lot of emotion and strong feeling. I think all of us that are pro-reform walked away and said we need to probably back up and talk to folks and educate them about why it’s important, what we as a state gain.
“You’ll see future efforts, but…we’re going to slow down the train and talk to folks, get a little better education effort, before we move forward on it,” he said.
Holdren said the laws need to be changed, in part, because they are outdated and are stifling business growth.
“Kansas Agricultural Growth and Rural Investment Initiative”
As introduced last session, the so-called “Kansas Agricultural Growth and Rural Investment Initiative” sought to allow any agricultural business entity to operate anywhere in the state.
Current law restricts ownership of certain agriculture operations, principally large swine and dairy facilities. It requires that a majority of partners must be related and at least one of them must live or actively work on the farm. It also limits the number of stockholders allowed in a farming operation to 10 for corporations and 15 for trusts. And it requires all corporate farms with land in the state to make annual reports to the Secretary of State about farming operations.
The bills pushed last year would have removed those provisions.
They also would have removed the provision requiring businesses to gain a county commission’s approval to operate a large swine or dairy operation.
Then-Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman told legislators that current law was keeping new agribusinesses from coming to Kansas.
If legislators were to approve the changes, it would “send a loud and clear message that Kansas is open for business,” Rodman said.
The administration has not changed its stance on the initiative, said Brownback spokesperson Sara Belfry.
“The Brownback administration is fully supportive of growing the Kansas economy and agricultural community in a safe and responsible manner,” she wrote in an email, indicating that officials view the proposed changes as safe and responsible.
Opponents of the proposal
But opponents say experience in other states has shown that swine and dairy facilities are not significant job creators. And they point to reports that the low-wage, high-turnover jobs that are created can be a net drag on local communities, which can experience increased social service and public safety costs.
Brownback, Rodman and Commerce Secretary Pat George traveled to China in July, stoking some opponents’ fears that an international company could set up a large swine operation more easily, if the law were changed.
The governor’s visit came about six weeks after it was made public that Shunghui International of China had made its offer to buy Smithfield, the largest U.S. pork producer. The federal government approved the merger in September.
Holdren of the Farm Bureau said fears that industry giants such as Shunghui would begin building swine facilities in the state were largely unfounded.
“I know those theories and rumors have been out there, and I guess if you just completely repealed the statute you would theoretically open the state up to anybody, anywhere,” Holdren said. “At the end of the day, though, it still takes a willing seller and a willing buyer to do those deals and by-and-large…most Kansas landowners want to keep that property in their family or in their operation. So, the bigger opportunity that’s created is one to partner with your neighbor, who you’re not related to but you have a farming interest with; or to bring in an out-of-state relative.”
Back in Greeley
Peter — the farmer who sold Seaboard his land and water rights — said he simply had no choice but to sell.
After years of tapping the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate his crops (mostly wheat and milo), Peter said there was not enough water left for him to plant.
“Everybody else just kept pumping,” Peter said. “I kept thinking the government would come around with a program that would save the water or do something about it, but nobody did anything. This was 10 years ago,” he said. Now, “I’ve got something for something I was going to lose anyway.”
Local residents opposed to the Seaboard operation, he said, are “worried about their drinking water. We were already out of water here. We were going to have to rig up water from somewhere. But Seaboard put a water line into our house, so I’ve got water now — until they run out.”
Others complain about the odor, and some have moved off their land downwind from the facility, Peter said.
“We’ve got a lot of neighbors that aren’t very happy about it. But when the wind blows from the west, I get cattle smell. There’s a dairy right over here and there’s a (cattle) feed yard over here,” he said.
Seaboard has since applied to expand its Greeley County facility to 200,000 hogs which, if approved, would make it the second largest hog-growing facility in the nation.