South Dakota, represent!

I learn all sorts of fun South Dakota facts from my Twitter friends. For instance, the USDA reported that in 2013, South Dakota was the nation's leading producer of bison, oats, and sunflowers. That list sounds so much more concrete, so much more vivid, than health, wealth, and beauty... let's update DeeCort Hammitt!

Hail, South Dakota,
A great state of the land!
Bison, oats, and sunflowers,
That's what makes her grand!

Then this evening, a friends shows me this map created by Seth Kadish showing USDA data on cattle per capita in the United States:

Map of cattle per capita, by Seth Kadish, based on USDA data

Map of cattle per capita, by Seth Kadish, based on USDA data

There are 87.7 million head of cattle in the United States. That's 0.28 cattle per American.

Nine states have more cattle than people, all adjacent on the Great Plains, plus Iowa. The highest cattle count per person is right here in South Dakota, with 4.32 hoofed mooers per person.

In other words, South Dakota has more bull per person than anywhere else in the country.

As you drive by those bovine pastures on your way to the 14-81 for a Jacks Burger, consider that each pound of beef your 4.32 cattle produce requires nearly 2,500 gallons of water to produce. Each dairy cow produces 120 pounds of wet manure per day. (Feel free to weigh your own production... or take the EPA's word that it takes 20 to 40 people to produce the same amount of poop.)

And still, with all those cattle around, Northern Beef Packers couldn't turn a profit. Go figure.

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Unlike bees, human populations in South Dakota aren't collapsing. Northern Plains News reports a turnaround in population trends in South Dakota, with a majority of South Dakota counties seeing growth between 2010 and 2012.

from John Cromartie, "Nonmetro Areas as a Whole Experience First Period of Population Loss," USDA Economic Research Service, 2014.05.06 http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-may/nonmetro-areas-as-a-whole-experience-first-period-of-population-loss.aspx

from John Cromartie, "Nonmetro Areas as a Whole Experience First Period of Population Loss," USDA Economic Research Service, 2014.05.06 http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-may/nonmetro-areas-as-a-whole-experience-first-period-of-population-loss.aspx

Note that West River is almost all blue, meaning growth, driven by higher birth rates among Indians, higher in-migration thanks to the Bakken boom up north, and higher rates of folks wanting to live near that hunky Larry Rhoden fellow. The tan decline areas are mostly among the non-metro James River Valley counties, which reflects the overall conclusion of this USDA report showing that, for the first time, the non-metro portion of the U.S. (72% of our land area) lost population.

NPN reports that South Dakota is bucking another national demographic trend: we've got more farms! Between 2007 and 2012, South Dakota sprouted 820 more farms, a 2.6% increase to 31,989. That's still 14% fewer farms than we had in 1982, but it's an increase that means more individuals in business for themselves growing food. And it beats the continuing national consolidation of farms: over the same five years that South Dakota added farms, the U.S. lost 100,000 farms, a 4.5% drop.

The growth in South Dakota is coming largely from small farms:

size (acres) 2012 2007 change
1 to 9 1,300 920 380
10 to 49 4,976 3,898 1,078
50 to 179 6,419 5,909 510
180 to 499 5,353 5,874 -521
500 to 999 4,229 4,714 -485
1000 to 1999 4,075 4,362 -287
2000+ 5,637 5,492 145
Total 31,989 31,169 820

Almost 1,460 new farms smaller than 50 acres! Small farms saw 41% growth in the 1-to-9-acre category, 28% growth in the 10-to-49-acre category. That's a lot of new small businesses. That gain was offset only by apparent consolidation of a lot of bigger farms. We lost just about 1,300 farms between 180 and 1,999 acres, with a small increase in the largest farms of 2,000 acres or more.

Alas, not growing in South Dakota: Democrats... and voters in general:

GOP Dem Ind Total Reg
May 4, 2010 233,347 194,642 82,071 512,125
May 1, 2014 235,838 175,406 96,547 509,629
diff 2,491 -19,236 14,476 -2,496
%change 1.1% -9.9% 17.6% -0.5%

We can't tell from the official numbers whether Democrats have swelled the Independent ranks or if Dems have simply checked out and new voters have leaned Indy. But the voter registration totals show that over the last four years, in a period when we've enjoyed at least 3.8% population growth, we've seen a slight drop in the number of people willing to participate in the democratic process.

Sounds like I'd better go find those new farmers and sign them up to vote!

8 comments

Bee colonies have been dying at alarming rates over the last few years. Things are so bad that South Dakota's 93 commercial beekeepers (and everyone else who likes to eat and thus needs bees to pollinate crops along with making honey) have to consider it "hopeful" news that only 23% of bee colonies collapsed last year, compared to 30% the year before. 18.9% die-off is considered the threshold for profitability. Ugh.

So what is decimating the bee colonies? This industry newsletter lists the following possibilities:

Bee health is impacted by a variety of stresses, such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even pesticides combining to weaken and kill bee colonies, said Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md [Allison Floyd, "More Bee Colonies Survived This Winter, Survey Shows," Growing South Dakota, 2014.05.16].

Did you notice that we mention that one human cause, pesticides, last in the list? New research from Harvard suggests we should move widely used neonicotinoid pesticides to the front of the line:

...a new Harvard study fingers neonics as the key driver of colony collapse disorder. The experiment couldn't have been simpler. Working with nearby beekeepers, Harvard researcher Chensheng Lu and his team treated 12 colonies with tiny levels of neonics and kept six control hives free of the popular chemicals. All 18 hives made it through summer without any apparent trouble. Come winter, though, the bees in six of the treated hives vanished, leaving behind empty colonies—the classic behavior of colony collapse disorder. None of the six control hives experienced a CCD-style disappearing act, although one did succumb to a common-to-bees gut pathogen called nosema [Tom Philpott, "Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery?Mother Jones, 2014.05.20].

Neonicotinoid producer Bayer disputes the findings, of course... because they have a product to sell and shareholders to keep rich.

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The South Dakota Corn Growers say that Big Oil has "hijacked" the railroads and is cutting into farmers' ability to ship their harvest and access fertilizer:

Dennis Jones, a farmer near Aberdeen, S.D., and co-founder of the South Dakota Corn Growers, said that rail equipment has been “hijacked by big oil,” and farmers can’t move their corn to either the Pacific Northwest for export or to closer destinations to feed ethanol plants.

“We need to get ag products back on the track and get fertilizer here, and move the mountains of grain that should have been shipped by now,” Jones said [Tom Meersman, "Farmers Seek More Rail Capacity for Grain," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2014.04.08].

The Corn Growers could propose solutions that would lessen farmers' dependence on the railroads: Invest in organic farming that cuts farmers' dependence on industrial fertilizer. Grow more crops that can make profit locally.

Instead, Big Ag advocates letting Big Oil hijack more of their land:

Jones said the longer-term solution to help farmers is approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline so that most North Dakota oil could be transported by pipeline instead of by rail [Meersman, 2014.04.08].

I know some folks who'd probably throw a corncob at your head if you told them letting a foreign company seize South Dakota farmland for an oil pipeline is good for South Dakota agriculture. But big corporate lobbies can make any statement sound plausible.

Meanwhile, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is opening a camp near Bridger in the Cheyenne River Valley to train members of the resistance movement against the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps some East River farmers should cross the river, camp out for a few days after planting, and compare perspectives on respect for the land.

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I've tried not to get too hawkish with climate change talk. I know that a majority of my readers, who April sunshine be darned still have their snow shovels at the ready by the front step, would likely vote for global warming.

But ag columnist Alan Guebert says farmers and ranchers should get serious about climate change, for the simple reason that it's going to make it hard to farm and ranch. Guebert pulls grim prognostications from the latest U.N. report on climate change. More drought, declining water supply and water quality, lower crop yields... but we know that since the U.N. says those things, it's just a plot to take over our land and put it under the control of foreign dictators (kind of like Keystone XL... oh, wait...).

Guebert finds Iowa State University agronomy professor Eugene Takle offering similar, science-based warnings:

Currently, Takle and ISU colleague Jerry Hatfield, director of the National Lab for Agriculture and Environment, are lead authors of the ag chapter of the mandated 2014 National Climate Assessment. The report, due later this month, "will paint a sobering picture of climate change globally and its impacts on the U.S.," Takle related when interviewed last fall for a campus publication.

"One of the key messages of the report," Takle said "is that the incidence of weather extremes will continue and will have increasingly negative effects on crop and livestock productivity because critical thresholds are already being exceeded."

At least someone at a respected American agricultural institution believes climate change will be the 21st century farm and ranch game changer. Too bad it's not an actual farm or ranch group [Alan Guebert, "Climate Change an Ag Game-Changer," Mitchell Daily Republic, 2014.04.09].

Part of the policy problem here is that even if South Dakota's ag producers pay attention to climate change, they can't single-handedly stave it off. They can reduce their reliance on industrial pesticides and fertilizer. They can turn to local markets to reduce their reliance on long-distance transport. But much of what would need to be done to stave off climate change caused by human activity won't happen in their fields. It will happen in the voting booth, where they have to stop voting for candidates like Kristi Noem and John Thune who tell them the Environmental Protection Agency is their enemy, and who promote short-term corporate profit (which bears some relationship to political contributions) over long-term stewardship.

Maybe it's just easier to believe that one's own actions, in the field and at the ballot box, don't really cause anyone else harm. Maybe it's just easier to believe that we either don't have to change or that any changes we make won't do any good anyway.

But will farmers just let the storms and droughts come, let more cattle and corn be lost, let more land wash and blow away, without even having a conversation about what's changing the climate and looking for policies that might stanch that change and preserve their livelihoods?

Whether or not we want to talk about it, climate change will bring changes to agriculture. The difference between thriving and perishing lies in changing our talk and our actions in response.

16 comments

South Dakota is on its way to joining the rest of civilized America and punishing animal cruelty as a felony. Senate Bill 46 passed House Judiciary Monday and the full House Tuesday, though a bit more bumpily than it did in its unanimous cruise through the Senate.

Senate Bill 46 is tougher than the legislation brought last year by South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together. But since SDFACT had a good talk with South Dakota's ag lobby and got everyone to realize we're all on the same page, the ag lobby and most of the Legislature got behind this bill.

Passing the bill required excluding the Humane Society of the United States from the summer negotiations over South Dakota's bill, said South Dakota pork and soybean lobbyist Lorin Pankratz in his testimony to House Judiciary Monday. The HSUS, as we all know, is plotting to take over the country, and even talking to seuch nefarious characters would make South Dakotans break out in hives and elect a poodle governor. Stockgrowers' lobbyist Jeremiah Murphy emphasized that "the people in this room"—the state veterinarian, the stockgrowers, the pork producers, all the big ag groups—wrote this bill, not just to color in the map and end South Dakota's status as the only state treating animal cruelty as a misdemeanor, but to make things better in South Dakota for animals and for agriculture.

Shari Kosel, the gal who spearheaded bringing animal cruelty to the Legislature's attention last year, testified concisely that SB 46 is collaboration and compromise in the best interest of South Dakota.

But some people just won't give up on HSUS hysteria. Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Kyle), who called herself the "Lone Ranger" in House Judiciary against the bill, said all of the preceding testimony on SB 46's South Dakota roots was "not factual." She said SB 46 was a problem caused by an organization that has vowed to eliminate animal agriculture. She said SB 46 arose from fear that HSUS would wage war on animal cruelty by ballot initiative. She said SB 46 is bad because HSUS shut down horse slaughter plants. I won't even try to explain the logic, because there is none.

Rep. May also asserted that all of the ag folks she talks to are against SB 46, even though all of the ag folks in the room had just gotten done testifying in favor of SB 46. She essentially dismissed the Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, the Stockgrowers Association, and other major ag groups as elitist special interests who don't represent common folks. Boy, I'd like to hear Rep. May repeat that line on the campaign trail!

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) rebutted Rep. May directly in committee discussion, saying SB 46 came entirely from South Dakotans, unlike a previous animal cruelty bill that was copied almost verbatim from an HSUS bill from Oregon. Rep. Anne Hajek (R-14/Sioux Falls) told people to look past the hype and read the bill. She slyly noted that SB 46 includes language that protects Rep. Olson's right to "shoot a mountain lion any time she wants to protect herself." Rep. Peggy Gibson (D-22/Huron) also corrected Rep. May's false fear that individuals convicted under SB 46 would lose their right to vote; she noted that once a convict has finished prison time and/or probation, that felon can regain the right to vote.

Committee Chairman Brian Gosch (R-32/Rapid City) complained that SB 46 costs too much. Evidently, $10,751 a year is too much to spend to more vigorously prosecute and punish the sociopaths who torture animals. Rep. Gosch also complained that "gross physical abuse," "prolonged pain," and "serious physical injury" are not clearly defined and cast one of only two votes against SB 46 in committee (the other came from his faithful lieutenant Rep. Justin Cronin, R-23/Gettysburg).

In the full House, you bet your boots that Rep. Betty Olson (R-29/Prairie City) voted against SB 46. Fourteen other legislators trembling before figments of their imagination joined her in the nay column Tuesday. SB 46 passed 54–15 and goes to Governor Dennis Daugaard for his signature.

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You know who's driving up farm land prices? Corporations and foreign investors:

In November 2012, UBS AgriVest, a unit of the Swiss banking giant UBS, paid $67.5 million, or nearly $7,000 per acre, for about 9,800 acres in southwest Wisconsin. The UBS division was behind similar land grabs in the Mississippi Delta, the Mountain West, and Georgia. Elsewhere, in Michigan, a publicly traded investment firm called the Gladstone Land Corp. is buying up parcels of land used to grow blueberries and other row crops. Gladstone is then finding corporate farmers to rent and cultivate the land.

“We’re tuning up and beginning to buy as much farmland as we can right now,” CEO David Gladstone told MiBiz.com. “There are a lot of farmers out there just leasing their farms (who) have children with no orientation for the business. They’re getting older and looking for some liquidity.”

Foreign companies are getting in on the action too. Family Farm Defenders is trying to keep that from happening in Wisconsin. Previously, a 130-year-old state law limiting farmland owned by foreign investors to 640 acres had prevented this kind of land grab. But Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been pushing for a repeal of the provision, essentially opening up Wisconsin’s farmland for sale to the highest bidder. The provision was dropped from Walker’s 2014 budget last year but is being discussed again among Republicans in the legislature for possible adoption [Steve Holt, "Here's Why Foreign Investors Are Trying to Buy American Farmland," TakePart, 2014.02.12].

South Dakota's Family Farm Act (SDCL Chapter 47-9A) is supposed to protect our farm land from foreign corporate monopolization. So I got to wondering how all those foreign EB-5 investors could invest in corporations like the state's favored mega-dairies and Northern Beef Packers.

Ah, loopholes. SDCL 47-9A-3.2 exempts beef processing plants from the Family Farm Act. SDCL 47-9A-3.3 exempts dairy operations. That change came in 2008, when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 173. The state apparently realized that all those giant corporate dairies into which they were funneling EB-5 funds might violate the corporate farming ban... so they lifted another corner of that ban. The Legislature approved the exemption partly on the testimony of serial polluter and lawbreaker Richard Millner. The Veblen dairies went bankrupt two years later, and the DENR blackballed Millner from further dairy ownership. The Veblen dairies remain under corporate ownership.

Coinciding with this state-favored corporate ownership is the ongoing decline of small family dairies. Since 2000, the number of small dairies in South Dakota has decreased from 329 to 37. Meanwhile, Governor Dennis Daugaard is recruiting more corporate-scale dairies from out of state to expand to South Dakota and fill the demand for the French cheese factory he lured to Brookings with corporate welfare.

You could argue that corporations foreign and domestic are scooping up our ag resources because there aren't enough young independent farmers going into the industry, and someone has to feed us. But when young people thinking of farming see the deck stacked against their profitability by laws and handouts that stack the deck in favor of already big corporations, why would they want to roll their dice against such big-capital competition?

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Senate Bill 46, this year's animal cruelty bill, is cruising through the Legislature. Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources passed it unanimously on Tuesday; the full Senate gave SB 46 the same favor on Thursday. False fears of evil out-state animal activists waging tyranny against our ranchers have disappeared. Senator Larry Rhoden threw some baloney forward about SB 46 permitting warrantless searches and seizures by non-governmental officials, but his two ayes (one in committee, one in the Senate) for SB 46 indicate he has taken the memo that animal authorities can already act without warrants thanks to legislation Rhoden himself backed in 2006.

I don't want to alienate good neighbors for changing their minds and supporting sensible legislation. But I can't help pointing out that last year, when South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together brought forward a more limited bill on making cruelty to dogs, cats, and horses a felony, state vet Dustin Oedekoven, SD Farm Bureau lobbyist Mike Held, SD Farmers Union lobbyist Mike Traxinger, Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones, and Gary Sanborn of the South Dakota Pet Breeders Association all testified in successful opposition to the large but lonely cadre of animal protection activist fighting for the bill. This year, Oedekoven, Held, Sanborn, the Farmers Union, and the Ag Department all testified in favor of a much tougher animal cruelty bill.

In a similar flip-flop, last year, Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources chair Shantel Krebs, Meade County rancher and Senator Larry Rhoden, and five of their colleagues voted against making cruelty to dogs, cats, and horses felony. This year, Secretary of State candidate Krebs, U.S. Senate candidate Rhoden, and their fellow 2013 naysayers all flipped and voted for a broader law than what the anti-cruelty activists wanted last year.

"Finding common ground was easier than we might have guessed," said state vet Oedekoven at the top of his testimony. That's a heartening statement. If we look past our stereotypes and assumptions and just talk to each other, we South Dakotans will find we all want a lot of the same practical policies.

We should celebrate the Senate's willingness to find common ground on this practical policy to protect our four-legged friends. We should be glad that our legislators will act to change our embarrassing position as the only state to punish animal abuse as a mere misdemeanor.

Unfortunately, we should also recognize the unpleasant subtext to the SB 46 story: regular folks have a tough time being heard in Pierre. Get some conscientious neighbors together to propose a good idea, and lobbyists and legislators will dismiss your proposal as a mere "constituent bill" (shouldn't every bill be a "constituent bill"?). They'll dismiss you as "greenies from out of state" (I predict Rep. Betty Olson will spoil unanimity in the House).

But hand the bill to state officials and big business, let them take the lead in promoting it, and suddenly, the Legislature thinks your idea is great. Our legislators are much more inclined to listen to the Daugaard administration and big industry lobbyists than to grassroots South Dakota activists.

*   *   *
The only opponent testimony came from Anita Lee of Hereford, SD, whose argument against SB 46 consisted mostly of her concern that making animal cruelty a felony would have serious consequences. A felony conviction, after all, takes away one's right to vote, hold office, and carry a gun. In my own vein of old-fashioned conservative advocacy personal responsibility, I would suggest that SB 46 is all about making people realize that evil actions should have hard consequences. If you don't want to lose various rights, maybe you shouldn't run dog fights or skin cats alive.

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