State Agriculture Secretary Advocates Dairy, Despite Questionable Cluelessness About Local Concerns

The DENR's Water Management Board met Wednesday, July 13, to discuss, among other things, Water Rights Application No. 7239-3 from Hanson County Dairy. Brookings County dairy entrepreneur Michael Crinion wants to build a 7000-head dairy on a quarter section four miles from Fulton and 15 miles from Mitchell. To water his cows and flush out the milking parlor three times a day, Crinion is applying to drill three new wells and draw up to 500 gallons a minute from the Floyd-East James aquifer.

Michael Crinion

Michael Crinion

Crinion is a dairy developer from Brookings. He's originally from Ireland. He came to America on an EB-5 visa, purchased by his investment of $500,000 in his Valley View Dairy near Estelline. (Crinion found seven other foreigners willing to buy their visas by investing a half-million each in his Brookings County project.) This EB-5 visa program has pumped millions of dollars into other mega-dairies in South Dakota, including the infamously rule-breaking and tax-evading Veblen dairies (which Crinion tried to buy at bankruptcy auction last year).

Crinion said Wednesday he has a local partner, Paul Iburg, whom he met in the South Dakota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program. Crinion said he has landowners with at least 10,000 acres within a five-mile radius of the proposed site signed up to receive manure for fertilizer and other local farmers eager to sell feed to his dairy.

Other Hanson County residents are less enthused about crowding 7000 cattle onto a quarter section on Johnson Creek, which flows south through Fulton and on to the James River. B.V. Kayser complained in a June 8 Mitchell Daily Republic op-ed that the dairy will saddle taxpayers with burdens of road repair and snow removal while sending most of the economic benefits out of the county. Several residents expressed a similar concern at a May 3 meeting about a proposed tax increment finance designation for the dairy.

Hanson County residents Robert L. Bender and Stace Nelson (who also happens to be a state legislator) went to Pierre Wednesday to express their concerns that the dairy's water usage could drain the aquifer and make neighbors' wells go dry. They also expressed concerns about water pollution and illegal immigration that may accompany the mega-dairy.

So whose side do you think the State of South Dakota takes in this permit issue?

Economic impact is the cornerstone of Governor Daugaard's administration. Agriculture being South Dakota's number one industry with a $21 billion impact and 143,000 jobs, it just makes sense that agriculture is a key part of economic development.... Future agriculture is not the same as agriculture of the past....

Walt Bones

Walt Bones

So begins the testimony of Walt Bones, South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture. Bones talks about his nothing-but-roses experience with his own dairy feedlot in Turner County and asserts that a big dairy will bring similar unmitigated blessings to Hanson County.

Secretary Bones's advocacy for this newest proposed mega-dairy should not surprise us. The State of South Dakota has a long-standing policy of promoting big dairies. This big-ag mindset protected our mega-dairy promotion program from Governor Daugaard's budget cuts. It has also contributed to the decimation of small family dairies in South Dakota. Hearing Secretary Butz—excuse me, Secretary Bones stand up for a big-money dairy man over local landowners and taxpayers reinforces the message that in agriculture, South Dakota's government expects you to get big or get out.

What does surprise me is Secretary Bones's... hmm, how shall I put it... evasiveness? ignorance?

Mr. Nelson begins his cross-examination of Secretary Bones at the 3:00:15 mark of Wednesday's audio. In his first question, Nelson asks if large dairies can have adverse effects on their communities.

Bones: "I don't know about, I mean, we've had great success with the dairy in our neighborhood."

Nelson: "Would you quantify Veblen dairy as a great success?"

Bones: "I don't know that much about the Veblen dairy, to be perfectly honest with you."

Wait: the Veblen dairies have made up 15% of South Dakota's dairy industry, an industry Secretary Bones has been part of for years. Bob Ellis produces 15% of the bullcrap in the South Dakota blogosphere, and most local political bloggers know who he is. Are you paying attention to your own industry, Secretary Bones?

Nelson then addresses concerns about the dairy's potential use of illegal immigrant labor. He cites the very low unemployment rate in the area (3.8%) and asks Secretary Bones where the workers will come from. Bones says, "That's Crinion's problem." Responding to further questions about similar labor issues in the Huron area, Secretary Bones says he has a waiting list of folks who want to work at his Turner County Dairy. Secretary Bones says he is not familiar with the State Senate testimony on illegal immigration and ag industry labor this winter that led to the resignation of the Huron police chief who spoke up on that issue.

Having opened his testimony with mention of our governor's economic development priorities, Secretary Bones seems surprisingly oblivious to an issue relating to Huron's Dakota Provisions, one of the big feathers in the state's agricultural economic development cap. His Department of Agriculture advertises Dakota Provisions on its South Dakota Flavor! website. Is the Secretary of Agriculture really not aware of controversial legislative testimony concerning one of the largest ag employers in the state?

When Nelson asks if Secretary Bones is aware of concerns Hanson County residents have about the proposed dairy and employment issues, Secretary Bones again dodges, saying that all of his dairy employees must have I-9 forms, Social Security cards, and drivers licenses. Pressed, Bones says he is not aware of the concerns Hanson County residents have about possible illegal immigrants.

Nelson says he expressed concerns of Hanson County residents to the Department of Agriculture via Lucas Lentsch, director of the Division of Ag Development. Later in testimony, Nelson says Lentsch said he conveyed that information to his boss Secretary Bones. Nelson asks why Secretary Bones has come to testify in support of this water permit without presenting any information about the concerns raised by Hanson County residents. Secretary Bones appears not to have a good answer for why he didn't get that information from Lentsch or why he is taking sides in favor of one dairy developer against the expressed interests of Hanson County residents.

Secretary Bones's answers under oath demonstrate a strange lack of knowledge of issues relevant to the Hanson County Dairy proposal and the agriculture industry statewide. To live up to his goal "to be accessible and responsive to our producers and constituents," Bones may need to keep his ear a little closer to the ground.

The Secretary of Agriculture's ignorance did not stop the Water Management Board from voting to approve the permit for the three wells Mr. Crinion needs to move ahead with the Hanson County Dairy. Crinion will move on with the other permitting requirements, including the manure discharge permit, wherein we'll learn just how much poop he'll be piling upstream from Fulton.