Administration officials, lobbyists say more groundwork neededbefore pursuing changes

By PhilCauthon
KHI NewsService

GREELEY COUNTY-FarmerDanny Peter committed what some in rural Kansasconsider a cardinal sin: He sold his land to a big corporation so it couldbuild a huge hog farm; biggest in the state, in fact.

"We've got a couple neighbors that aren't very happy. But theyaren't paying my bills," said Peter, who lives 12 miles north of Tribunein Greeley County.

"As long as they're controlling the waste, the smell isn't thatbad," Peter said. "But I guarantee you that anyone living downwindfall is going to have some smelly days."

In 2010, the Greeley County commission votedto approve Seaboard Farms' request to build a 132,000-hog facility. Seaboard isone of the world's largest producers and packers of pork. That was the sameyear Peter sold his ground to the food, transportation and energy giant.

Seaboard, which is headquartered in Shawnee Mission, is among thecompanies that could possibly benefit from a controversial proposal to relax Kansas laws on corporateagriculture.

Currently, Seaboard and others like it must get permission fromcounty commissioners or win approval from residents at the ballot box beforebuilding the massive confined animal operations that in the past few decadeshave come to dominate U.S.meat production.

Last year the Department of Agriculture and the state's top aglobbyists began urging legislators to remove those hurdles while making otherchanges to the law, saying that would help spur jobs and economic growth.

Though that effort will continue, administration officials and majorag industry lobbyists now say they will not attempt to change the law thisyear.

"The agency does not intend to pursue consideration of the bills.The ruling from the judicial council deserves full consideration beforeacting," said Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey in an emailto KHI News Service.

McClaskey was referring to a forthcoming recommendation to theLegislature from the Kansas Judicial Council on existing corporate agriculturelaw.

An advisory committee to the council spent several months in thefall reviewing corporate farming laws at the request of Rep. Sharon Schwartz, aWashington Republican who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural ResourcesCommittee, and Sen. Larry Powell, the Garden City Republican who chairs theSenate Natural Resources Committee.

The advisory committee issued a report tothe council Dec. 6. The report recommends that Kansas' corporate ag lawbe 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 committeemeeting on Tuesday.

"It will be interesting to see if (the report) generatesinterest, but at this point in time I don't see the interest in making anychanges. I haven't really polled the committee, so we'll see," saidSchwartz, whose family farms several crops and is part of a medium-sized swinecooperative in Washington County.

"Unless there's a huge push for it, which I haven't seen atthis point in time...it may just sit here. It would have to have the support ofthe 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 pushedlast year for passage of corporate farming changes via House Bill2404 and its upper-chamber counterpart, Senate Bill191.

Terry Holdren, chief executive and general counsel for the FarmBureau, said the group still strongly supports the bills, but is taking a newtack this session.

"We have strong interest in continuing to talk about and pursuesome sort of fix to the statute," Holdren said. "I think one of thethings we learned last year, and what you'll see this year, is a strongereffort to lay some groundwork in educating the Legislature about this issue. Wehad such massive turnover after the last election that there are a lot of folkswho have never really experienced this issue.

"This has a lot of history that we all saw last year, and a lotof emotion and strong feeling. I think all of us that are pro-reform walkedaway and said we need to probably back up and talk to folks and educate themabout why it's important, what we as a state gain.

"You'll see future efforts, but...we're going to slow down thetrain and talk to folks, get a little better education effort, before we moveforward on it," he said.

Holdren said the laws need to be changed, in part, because they areoutdated and are stifling business growth.

"KansasAgricultural Growth and Rural Investment Initiative"

As introduced last session, the so-called "Kansas AgriculturalGrowth and Rural Investment Initiative" sought to allow any agriculturalbusiness 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 ofpartners must be related and at least one of them must live or actively work onthe farm. It also limits the number of stockholders allowed in a farmingoperation to 10 for corporations and 15 for trusts. And it requires allcorporate farms with land in the state to make annual reports to the Secretaryof State about farming operations.

The bills pushedlast year would have removed those provisions.

They also would have removed the provision requiring businesses togain a county commission's approval to operate a large swine or dairyoperation.

Then-Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman told legislators that currentlaw was keeping new agribusinesses from coming to Kansas.

If legislators were to approve the changes, it would "send aloud and clear message that Kansasis 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 growingthe Kansaseconomy and agricultural community in a safe and responsible manner," shewrote in an email, indicating that officials view the proposed changes as safeand responsible.

Opponents of the proposal

But opponents say experience in other states has shown that swineand dairy facilities are not significant job creators. And they point toreports that the low-wage, high-turnover jobs that are created can be a netdrag on local communities, which can experience increased social service andpublic 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 alarge swine operation more easily, if the law were changed.

The governor's visit came about six weeks after it was made publicthat 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 asShunghui would begin building swine facilities in the state were largelyunfounded.

"I know those theories and rumors have been out there, and Iguess if you just completely repealed the statute you would theoretically openthe state up to anybody, anywhere," Holdren said. "At the end of theday, though, it still takes a willing seller and a willing buyer to do thosedeals and by-and-large ... most Kansaslandowners 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 inan 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 toplant.

"Everybody else just kept pumping," Peter said. "I keptthinking the government would come around with a program that would save thewater or do something about it, but nobody did anything. This was 10 yearsago," he said. Now, "I've got something for something I was going tolose anyway."

Local residents opposed to the Seaboard operation, he said, are"worried about their drinking water. We were already out of water here. Wewere going to have to rig up water from somewhere. But Seaboard put a waterline into our house, so I've got water now - until they run out."

Otherscomplain about the odor, and some have moved off theirland 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 dairyright over here and there's a (cattle) feed yard over here," he said.

Seaboard has since applied toexpand its Greeley County facility to 200,000 hogs which,if approved, would make it the second largest hog-growing facility in thenation.

 

The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the KansasHealth Institute. It is supported in partby a variety of underwriters. The News Service is committed to timely,objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy-makingenvironment.


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