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Though not the first in ND, hog farm proposed near Devils Lake attracts attention

DEVILS LAKE--A proposed swine farm near Devils Lake that would house hundreds of hogs wouldn't be the first of its kind in North Dakota. Yet the one proposed by Grand Prairie Agriculture has attracted a lot of attention from advocates and opponents.

Submitted Photo by National Pork Board
Submitted Photo by National Pork Board

DEVILS LAKE-A proposed swine farm near Devils Lake that would house hundreds of hogs wouldn't be the first of its kind in North Dakota.

Yet the one proposed by Grand Prairie Agriculture has attracted a lot of attention from advocates and opponents.

"There certainly have been a large number of comments" regarding the farm, said Karl Rockeman, water quality director for the North Dakota Department of Health.

The Health Department has given preliminary approval to the farm that could house up to 2,499 hogs, and Friday was the deadline for submitting written comments on the proposal. The state extended the original deadline of Sept. 28 to give residents more time to gather information before submitting their thoughts, Rockeman said.

Numerous agriculture entities-the North Dakota Pork Council, the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, the North Dakota Stockmen's Association and the state Department of Agriculture-have thrown their support behind the project that would be build about 10 miles west of Devils Lake, but the farm has received loud vocal opposition from local residents, groups and the Spirit Lake Nation. More than 400 people attended public hearings last month in Devils Lake and at the Spirit Lake Casino and Resort, with most voicing concerns about the farm being built a half-mile away from the lake shore.

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"There are places in this state that you could put hog farms that would not be this destructive," said Lois Steinhaus, a Devils Lake resident who is a spokeswoman for Lake Region Concerned Citizens.

Declining the proposal would send a message that animal agriculture is not welcomed in North Dakota, said Daniel Julson, a partner of Grand Prairie Agriculture. He said the company would go "above and beyond" to follow Health Department rules.

"I would be ungodly surprised if they said for any reason this wouldn't pass," he said. "If they are going to say this project isn't going to pass, you might as well just not do animal agriculture in North Dakota."

State of the hog industry

As of Sept. 1, there were 75.5 million hogs in the country, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture The amount of swine the U.S. raises has been on a steady climb since mid-2009, when farmers had almost 64 million hogs.

North Dakota had 147,000 pigs as of Dec. 1, the latest numbers available from the USDA. That was about 1 percent up from the December 2016 count.

Overall, hog numbers have been on the decline since 2007, when the state had 182,000 hogs, the USDA said. With the 2017 pig crop at 818,000 head, North Dakota production was up last year from 2016 by 8 percent.

The state has 14 large-scale hog farms, Rockeman said. The largest portion of the state's hogs-about 26,000-live in Grand Forks County, according to the USDA.

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State legislators and the agriculture community have tried to reverse the hog industry's declining trend-including a failed effort in 2016 to loosen anti-corporate farming laws for dairy and swine farmers.

North Dakota has areas of isolation that work for biosecurity-preventing the spread of diseases-on swine farms, said Kevin Blake, president of the North Dakota Pork Council. Crops produced in North Dakota-corn and soybeans-can be used to feed hogs, he said.

"We feel North Dakota has a lot of assets for any livestock industry," he said.

The Devils Lake location was chosen for its biosecurity and for its proximity to Grand Prairie Agriculture partner Taylor Aasmundstad's farm, Julson said. The two young farmers spoke in college about getting into the livestock industry, Julson said.

"Taylor's family had livestock-they had cattle-when he was younger, and I had cattle when I was young, so I think we both had interest in animal agriculture," Julson said.

Environment and economics

More than 1,500 people have joined a Facebook page for Lake Region Concerned Citizens, a local group opposing the farm. They are not convinced the farm would not accidentally leak manure into Devils Lake or surrounding aquifers, despite assurances from the Health Department and Grand Prairie Agriculture, Steinhaus said.

The Spirit Lake Nation is to the south of the proposed site for the hog farm. Tribal leadership passed a resolution in August opposing the farm, saying it will "defend the sacred water of Devils Lake by seeking to ensure that government agencies are held accountable and fulfill their obligations to keep its waterways and its drinking water safe."

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There also is a cemetery with about 200 graves nearby.

"I just see it as a lack of respect for the people that are buried there and for their loved ones who want to come visit them," Steinhaus said.

The hog farm may convince prospect residents to not move to or visit the area for recreation, she said. That, in turn, could have an economic impact on the region, she said.

There have been other hog farm projects that have drawn backlash from North Dakota residents, Rockman said. The concerns seem to revolve around contamination and odors.

"That seems to be the recurring concerns with various, different facilities, regardless of where they are located or even the size," he said.

Blake said he doesn't see the issues the opposition does.

"The technology that the industries have now compared to what they had even 10 years ago ... are so much different," he said, adding odors should be minimal.

The Health Department has not had any contamination problems with hog farms in North Dakota, Rockman said.

"I would say, in general, these facilities are well-run and responsible," he said.

Blake, who works for a hog farm near Cando, N.D., said the farms in North Dakota are family-owned. They would not risk contamination or animal cruelty, he said.

"That's their livelihood, being it is a family-type business," he said.

Julson said those who oppose it don't have the right facts and instead rely on information that confirms their opinions. The Health Department has not said the company violated any laws or the proposed farm is unsafe, he said.

Groups that support hog farms have been good about finding proper places for the projects, Steinhaus said.

"This is just not the right place for a pig facility," she said.

North Dakota is an agriculture state, Blake said, and shutting down a project could convince young farmers to move out of the state.

"North Dakota as a whole needs to keep its identity in agriculture," he said, adding that includes animal agriculture.

It will take 30 to 90 days to review the comments and make a final decision, Rockeman said. However, local entities will have to give final approval for zoning. Steinhaus feels the Health Department will approve the permit, but the group would look to local governments to block the project.

"It's too important to give up on," she said.

Related Topics: DEVILS LAKE
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