When I visited Charlie Hoffman last August, the outgoing state representative and passionate prairie grasser said that the current agricultural land tax formula discourages grassland restoration and preservation and drives turning prairie grassland to row crops. Hoffman suggested our property tax system should look at actual use of ag land instead of potential use.

Toward that end, the interim committee that studied ag land assessment recommended Senate Bill 4, which would have funded research by SDSU economists on the impact of switching to an actual-use formula. SB 4 wouldn't change the tax system; it would just study a possible change.

Landowners, the Farm Bureau, the Cattlemen's Association, Ducks Unlimited, and the Izaak Walton League thought a study on actual-use assessment sounded like a good idea. The Corn Growers did not, and neither did the full Senate. Last Wednesday, the Senate killed SB 4 16–18. That may sound close, but remember that, as a bill planning to spend money (and Senate Appropriations had already one-bucked the original $151K price tag to keep the bill moving), SB 4 required a two-thirds vote, or 24 Senators. All 18 nays came from Republicans, who apparently not only won't implement a better tax system but won't even let us study possible improvements in our tax system.

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South Dakota chickens are apparently slacking off. About 2.63 million chickens laid 752 million eggs in South Dakota last year, but according to the USDA, that's a 4% drop laying chickens and an 8% drop in egg production.

Sonstegard Foods would single-handedly triple the number of laying chickens in our fair state with their proposed six-million-beak egg factory near Parker. Opponents are suing Turner County over allegedly improper zoning actions that would allow Sonstegard Foods to plunk those chickens and all their emissions less than three miles from town, not to mention within noseshot of nice folks who enjoy peaceful country living.

Sonstegard Foods says we won't notice the stink when they bring 150 jobs to Parker (maybe ten years from now). Jobs, mind you—not careers, not opportunities for independent farmers and landowners to captain their own destinies, just jobs... or maybe serfdom:

Chicken farmers are usually contractors for big companies. Most of them don’t even own the chickens they raise.

The chicken industry, like much of the meat industry, is what’s called “vertically integrated.” That means the company controls or owns almost every step of the production process, and competition between entities is minimal.

Companies usually own the breed of bird, and the hatchery where chicks are born. Same with the chickens they deliver to the farmer, the mills that make the feed farmers use, the slaughterhouse – and often even the trucking lines that deliver the meat to market.

Usually, the only thing they don’t own is the farm where the chickens are grown — the riskiest, lowest-yielding stage of the production line. The farmer has little control over what chicks he’s given, and little say in how they are raised. Some compare contract chicken farmers to sharecroppers.

[Says ag policy professor Robert Taylor,] “The farmer, if push comes to shove, is nothing more than an indentured servant or a serf, because the farmer is completely at the mercy of whatever the company decides to do" [Mariana van Zellar, "Cock Fight," Fusion, February 2015].

Farm entrepreneurs won't flock to Turner County for that kind of chicken feed. Like Beadle and Brown counties, Turner County will likely have to turn to an immigrant workforce that just happens to be easier to indenture.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for the economic and cultural growth immigration brings to South Dakota. But are we really improving our quality of life by promoting businesses that offer literally crappy jobs that most South Dakotans don't want to do?

* * *

We're really a food manufacturer that happens to have chickens on site.

—Peter Sonstegard, VP of sales, Sonstegard Foods, quoted in John Hult, "6M Chickens Could Come to Roost in Turner County," that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.01.27

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Dakota Rural Action does not like concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Big feedlots pose a greater risk to land, water, and air quality than other forms of agriculture.

Dakota Rural Action has managed to knock down two bills promoting CAFOs in the 2015 Legislature. House Bill 1173 threatened to make folks who appeal zoning decisions for CAFOs pay for their failed appeals; DRA got that bill hoghoused down to a mere clarification of existing statute. Senate Bill 127 would have weakened South Dakota's Family Farming Act by allowing corporations to own hog farms. DRA members called Pierre enough to get prime sponsor Senator Arthur Rusch (R-17/Vermillion) to pull the plug on his bill.

Now Dakota Rural Action is fighting what it calls the worst of this Session's CAFO bills. House Bill 1201 moves decisions on conditional-use permits from elected county officials to appointed boards of adjustment. It changes the vote threshold for approving conditional use permits from two-thirds to simple majority. Essentially, this bill makes it easier for the state and corporations to push more CAFOs into counties. It ignores the basic parliamentary rule that "suspending the rules," which we do when we allow a CAFO or any other development to break the normal building and environmental rules with a "conditional use," requires something larger than a simple majority vote.

House Local Government passed HB 1201 last Thursday 10–3, with Rep. Lana Greenfield (R-2/Doland) briefly emerging from her GOP confusion and voting with Democratic Rep. Paula Hawks (D-9/Hartford) and Rep. Karen Soli (D-15/Sioux Falls) against the corporate CAFO agenda. DRA is now focused on educating members of the House, who have today and tomorrow to act on HB 1201 before the deadline to send bills to the opposite chamber.

Related Tweeting: Mike Henriksen makes a connection between HB 1201 and South Dakota's declining farm numbers:

Update 10:06 CST: Dakota Rural Action summarizes its opposition to HB 1201 in this open letter to legislators, which DRA invites you to sign:

What the bill really does is this: it takes decision-making power on conditional use permits out of the hands of elected officials and puts it in the hands of appointed boards of adjustment, where the only recourse for an appeal is to go straight to court. It then allows counties to lower the number of votes needed to approve conditional use permits from 4/5 to 3/5, even though all other decisions still require a 4/5 vote. And finally, the bill is the first step in codifying a conditional use site certification program, one which would completely cut out public participation in the siting, review, and approval of conditional uses even though these decisions can have huge impact on surrounding properties, farms, ranches, and businesses [Dakota Rural Action, open letter to South Dakota Legislature, February 2015].

20 comments

Chuck Clement reads the USDA's latest report on Farms and Land in Farms and finds South Dakota lost 300 farms last year. That's a return to the long-term trend that South Dakota was briefly bucking: fewer farms, bigger operations.

37 states lost farms. 10 states held steady. Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming added farms.

If we heard that South Dakota had lost 300 manufacturers, or 300 car dealers, or 300 construction contractors, we might hear some alarm. But hey, South Dakota has the same amount of land (43.3 million acres) in farms, 3% more cattle on feed, 4% more hogs and pigs, and more farms in the million-plus-value class. More machines, fewer Democrats—as long as the GDP numbers look good, what's there to fret about?

By the way, hired farm hands in the Northern Plains region (South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa) earn 17% more than the national average and 17% more than neighbors in the Lake Region (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan). We can pay hired hands more than the national average, but not teachers.

19 comments

Friend and blogger Don Carr has pointed out the scientific disconnect Senator John Thune and other tools of the plutocracy exhibit in their embrace of scientific evidence to defend genetically modified crops and their rejection of scientific evidence to fight climate-change legislation.

The statements of South Dakota's Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch on GMO labeling also display the Republican incoherence on federalism:

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture have passed a resolution supporting a national uniform labeling policy for genetically modified foods. South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch says a national standard is needed to overcome all the problems caused by different and diverse state regulations that hamper bio technology.

[Sec. Lentsch]: "The reason why that's so important to get a national footprint on it is to stop the piecemeal approach. You know, in Oregon, there was one county that decided to take on GMO lableing. If you could imagine the patchwork that would happen at a local level across our country, it... would be impossible to try to even manage that. I think that provides clarity and consistency for our consumers" ["NASDA Wants National GMO Labeling," WNAX Radio, 2015.02.09].

Remember, Lentsch directed the SDGOP, which avidly supports states rights and local control on issues like immigration and teacher pay when it suits their agenda. But let states jump ahead on health and environmental concerns that cut into corporate profits, and letting the small laboratories of democracy try different things becomes a piecemeal, patchwork mess that must be ironed out by big government.

Secretary Lentsch underscores a running theme in SDGOP politics: their only principle is power. Their only goal is serving the corporate colonizers who want what they want and will use any available tools and rhetoric to get it.

38 comments

Our Spearfish neighbors are holding an important meeting tonight at 6 p.m. at Hudson Hall downtown. The Spearfish Ag Land Committee will discuss the preservation of agricultural land in the Spearfish Valley.

The discussion will likely revolve around the Runnings' property, a 15.4-acre tract near Evans Lane. The land is among the turf in Spearfish Valley, on the north side of Spearfish, that has long been used for farming but now is on the market. A local correspondent tells me that one development deal has fallen through; the property is listed online for $989,000. Developers see an opportunity to build housing to meet demand in a tight market. Advocates for agriculture and sustainability contend that the community is served at least as well by maintaining the Valley's agricultural traditions as well as some local economic diversity.

Ray Running bought his 15 acres* after serving in the Army Air Corps in Italy in World War II. According to Running's 2011 obituary, he claimed his Valley corn was the best corn in South Dakota. Running used his SDSU education and his experience to teach agriculture to veterans in Meade County.

A local Spearfish correspondent sends me information from old-timer Linfred Schuttler, who farmed the Valley for strawberries, raspberries, and other produce. He says the Valley's orchards once supported exports across the Black Hills and to Wyoming and Nebraska. "There were thousands and thousands of apple trees," says Schuttler, "all the way down to the Redwater before there were stands. People would come in the fall with their wagons for miles.” Schuttler is worried that housing development in the Valley will cause more of the irrigation ditches that have boosted the Valley's productivity will be filled in. "Once they're lost," says Schuttler, "they can't be regained."

Can Spearfish have more housing and healthy local food? Tonight's meeting at Hudson Hall will give Spearfish residents the chance to wrestle with that question. Having rented in Spearfish, I recognize the need for affordable housing for workers and families in the Queen City. But I also recognize the unique value of the fertile Spearfish Valley as an economic resource for small, independent farmers. Spearfish needs to figure out the proper balance between these competing aspects of quality of life.

Update 2015.02.03 15:08 CST: An earlier version of this article erroneously attributed additional information about Ray Running's land purchase to a Spearfish resident who, in turns out, has no knowledge about Running's history. I have edited out that information and apologize for the error.

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Patrick Anderson features my moonshot plan to raise teacher pay $10,000, to 34th in the nation, on the education e-pages of that Sioux Falls paper. My plan secures that monumental raise, around $92 million a year spread among about 9,200 K-12 teachers, by lifting 16% of the $582 million in sales tax exemptions the state grants to favored goods and services.

Actually, let's update that: The Governor's proposed budget for FY2016 includes $735 million in sales and use tax exemptions and other tax expenditures. For our moonshot teacher teacher pay raises—which simply make our wages competitive, not over the moon—we need 12.5% of those exemptions, one out of eight dollars.

Anderson notes that a third of the sales tax exemptions are for ag products (e.g., cattle feed and bedding, tractor fuel, swine and bull semen) and asks if nixing those favors would unfairly burden farmers. (Ah, clever, corporate journalists, trying to split the Democrat farm-teacher alliance!) I don't have any particular 12.5% on the chopping block yet. I've certainly never suggested we should take all of the exemptions from the farm sector. To the extent that it is possible to levy a regressive tax fairly, we should spread the exemption cuts around to share the burden among those best able to bear them, to tap wealth where wealth lies. I suggested in our phone interview we might do better to cut the exemption for shoppers' guide ink and advertising... but somehow that suggestion didn't get past the editor's desk at that Sioux Falls paper.

I also told Anderson in our phone conversation that I recognize that ending our our national embarrassment as the state that values teachers least by raising a regressive tax is a suboptimal solution and that many teachers would likely vote against raising their pay by expanding a regressive tax. I'd be open to a wide array of superior funding mechanisms for competitive teacher pay—corporate income tax, re-appropriation of corporate welfare, pot of gold at end of rainbow. I'm just offering a plan within the realm of the politically possible.

It thus seems perfectly possible to sir down with smart people in government and industry and prioritize those exemptions. Which exemptions serve the greatest public purpose? Which cuts will fall on sectors best able to bear them? Make list, cut off the bottom eighth (eighth, I said, eighth!), and we have competitive teacher wages.

And with seven-eighths of the exemptions, $643 million dollars, still on the table, we'd have plenty of room left to consider lifting exemptions to reduce or eliminate the tax on food, the way Minnesota and other civilized states do... because after all, how fair is a tax system that taxes your bologna sandwich but not bull semen?

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The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee includes House Bill 1056 on its agenda Tuesday morning. HB 1056 includes a whole lot of housekeeping, tedious changes like replacing agriculture with agricultural in references to the ag mediation program. Someone must really want an adjective....

Dig through the style and form, and you'll find some interesting changes. For one, serving as state ag secretary is about to become cheaper. Right now, the person chosen by the Governor to lead the state Department of Agriculture is required by law to put up a bond of at least $10,000. The secretary's appointed executive assistants have to put bonds of at least $5,000. Sections 3 and 4 of HB 1056 say, "Nah, we trust you," and strike those bond requirements.

For what it's worth, numerous other public officials have to put up bonds to serve. SDCL 3-5-3 requires security deposits from all sorts of renters of public offices:

  • State Auditor: $10K
  • Secretary of State: $5,000
  • Commissioner of School and Public Lands: $20,000
  • Attorney General: $3,000
  • county commissioners: $1,000
  • county auditor: minimum $2,000
  • county treasurer: minimum $4,000, unless the county collects less than $2,000 in taxes, in which case the bond is a minimum of $1,000
  • county constable: minimum $200

The highest state officeholder bonds I've found so far are $100,000 required of the director of the Division of Insurance and $50,000 for that division's actuary and attorney (see SDCL 58-2-12).

Sections 9 and 10 offer a small but useful clarification of conservation district powers. Current law allows counties to contribute money to conservation districts to protect "soil and water resources" that protect the county's tax base. Section 9 replaces "soil and water" with "natural." This change would appear to allow counties to disburse funds for, say, wildlife habitat projects carried out by conservation districts. Section 10 on conservation district powers replaces a number of instances of "soil" with "natural resources". These changes appear to clarify that conservation districts may conduct water conservation projects that aren't directly tied to agriculture.

Sections 7 and 22 suggest the state ag secretary wants less to do with trees. Section 7 removes the state's shelterbelt program from the State Conservation Commission's portfolio, thus working with HB 1055 to abolish the shelterbelt program. Section 22 removes the requirement that the state forester cooperate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in providing assistance to landowners "for protecting farm buildings, crops, and fields from erosion; and for furnishing forest cover beneficial for water conservation and for wildlife habitat."

HB 1056 is up for discussion before House Agriculture and Natural Resources tomorrow, Tuesday morning, at 7:45 a.m. Get ready for minutiae and amendments!

9 comments

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