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Turner County Egg Factory Would Bring 6 Million Chickens and Serfdom

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


  1. Tim 2015.02.27

    "Turner County will likely have to turn to an immigrant workforce that just happens to be easier to indenture."

    Is this the same immigrant workforce republicans want to deport? Or is there another one we are not aware of that republicans are okay with taking advantage of?

  2. Paul Seamans 2015.02.27

    The South Dakota House has just made it easier to site CAFO's with the passage of HB1201. It now goes to the Senate conference committee for discussion. Just yesterday, at Tribal Relations Day in the Capitol Rotunda, Gov. Daugaard again proclaims what a great thing the County Site Analysis program is. This program identifies the best sites in each county for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Make no mistake, launching More CAFO's in the state is a large part of the governors economic development plan. Oh well, as many people smugly say when confronted about the smell of manure, "that's the smell of money". If Gov. Daugaard has his way the State of South Dakota will soon "smell like money".

  3. Tim 2015.02.27

    Daugaard's plan for the state, the central and eastern sections smell like money, us folks out west get to glow in the dark, and all for no wages, what a great place to live.

  4. Troy 2015.02.27


    How is it that farmers will be forced into this serfdom?

  5. larry kurtz 2015.02.27

    Troy, you remind me so much of Craig Moore, a Montana blogger and catholic earth hater. You're twin sons of different mothers.

  6. Paul Seamans 2015.02.27

    HB 1201 will be in Senate Ag on Tuesday at 10:00 CT. Contact the committee members to voice your concerns. Better yet come on out and fill the committee room, show the legislature that we are concerned about CAFO's and their effect on our water and air.

  7. mike from iowa 2015.02.27

    What happens if someone builds one next to the capitol bldg in Pierre? Perfect site,imho,and I've never been there. How about next to Round's house on the river? Does Dakota force owners to live on site and if not,why not if they are such nice places.

  8. Steve Hickey 2015.02.27

    What follows I just posted on another article here at Madville but it's probably more fitting here.

    This will be a big conversation in our state for the next few years. I stood up on the house floor a few times the session to speak against CAFOs. Each of you should listen to the House floor debate from earlier this week on 1201. My friend Rep Mickelson is very forthright about the need for many many more CAFOs . We are about to see a big surge in South Dakota agriculture in this area. In the 1990s my father in Hutchison county fought a big CAFO Tyson hog farm operation coming in. Jim Abouresk was his lawyer. He knows these issues well. The issues the neighbors raise are real. It is a battle between stink and money.

    I should probably apologize to the entire state of Iowa for commenting on the floor about one of my kids asking years ago "did you blow one or are we in Iowa?"

    As the legal avenues to challenge these big operations are being weakened, my advice for someone trying to fight a hog farm coming in across the roadis as follows: Since they say air quality is not affected by 3000 sows across the road, say to them, "okay then you won't mind if I put up at Morton building and open a sick pig hospital and have my kids walk sick respiratory-infected piggies up and down the road after school every day." That exchange actually happened in my district last fall and the CAFO moved the location. As you know CAFOs are vulnerable to airborne bacteria and that's why they keep the public out. I asked about visiting one and was told I couldn't because of risk of disease.

    Sen. Billie Sutton's wife wrote something on vertical integration and these big farms driving out the little guys. He sent me a letter she wrote, fascinating.

  9. Bill Dithmer 2015.02.27

    Here's the deal. If you want to get the attention of either the legislature, or a county commission, you have to make it so they have no choice.

    One way would be to make a positive statement through what would be an illegal act. Take up a collection from your friends and neighbors to pay a fine in advance.

    Then find a really ripe chicken house or hog barn. Next you take an industrial strength garbage sack and fill it with the appropriate smell, it wont take much, seal it for 24 hours. Then you slip into the meeting and set the bag on the floor in front of the board and cut, dont dump from the open end, then just stand there and hold your nose. When the cops are called and people start to bitch, tell em thats what your fighting for is clean air to breath. Have multiple phs and cameras on hand for the record.

    Make no mistake you will be booked, but you will get your point across. If you feel strongly enough to do it the publicity would be worth the fine.

    A more nuanced approach would be to get several people that work in a confinement situation to wear their dirty work cloths to the meeting and just hang out. Whenever someone gives you "the look," or comments, tell them why your there.

    It's all about the comfort level that you allow those making policy to have at the time they are writting that policy.

    The Blindman

  10. SuperSweet 2015.02.27

    And a lot of the wages of immigrant labor go back to the country from which they came and not spent on the local economy.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.27

    Yes, Troy, as long as people "choose" to do something, it's fine. Vertically integrate the chicken market, and families who've made a living in farming will "choose" to stick with what they know and try to get by under the new boss. Fire up a giant egg factory, and immigrants will "choose" to take under-the-table checks and live in their bosses' company apartments. Pass the youth minimum wage, and kids will "choose" to work for $7.50 an hour. Abolish the minimum wage, and some desperate soul will "choose" to work all day for ten bucks and sandwich. Throw up barriers to divorce, and abused women will "choose" to stay with their husbands rather than weaken the foundations on which South Dakota was built.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.27

    Paul, how does Indian Country feel about developing CAFOs on tribal land?

    Steve, does Rep. Mickelson have a house near any proposed CAFOs? Will any proposed CAFOs build anywhere within noseshot of Sioux Falls to return them to the glory days of the aroma of John Morrell's?

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.27

    SuperSweet, are we allowed to offer that economic critique as an argument against CAFOs without sounding racist?

    The idea that immigrants send a lot of that money to the Old Country instead of plowing it back into the local economy does merit discussion. An immigrant workforce would seem to require a lower multiplier for economic impact calculations. That critique seems no different from the critique we might offer of Walmart or other outside corporations who come to South Dakota, set up shop, create some jobs, but also ship a chunk of their profits back to corporate headquarters in Arkansas or Ireland or wherever. Local workers, just like local businesses would seem to offer better recycling of dollars.

  14. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.02.27

    I wonder what Daugard and his crony pals get out of these CAFO deals?

  15. Jana 2015.02.27

    Deb, I'll venture a guess that it's the pride of killing off family farms and creating low wage jobs for the chance to pound their chest that they did something.

  16. Jana 2015.02.27

    I mean, after hanging out at the Mall of America, a failed relationship with Manpower of Wisconsin and EB-5...they gotta have something to brag about for those not willing to look deeper.

  17. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.02.27

    I'm sure you're right Jana. I was thinking of more concrete gratitude from those who will profit from these CAFOs.

  18. Paul Seamans 2015.02.27

    Cory, historically the tribes have opposed CAFO's. In recent years the Yankton tribe has kept a, I believe it was hogs, CAFO from building on the Yankton reservation. Back in 1998 the Rosebud tribal council and the BIA okayed a hog operation west of the town of White River that would have raised 859,000 hogs a year. This was contested by tribal members and two strong lady tribal members took it all the way to the US Supreme Court before the project was stopped. The two units that had been built before the supreme court decision now sit idle.
    Most tribes are agreeable to smaller projects like a 1000 head feed yard but I don't believe that a large CAFO would have much of a chance on any of the reservations. I am not aware of any presently on any reservation at this time.

  19. Bill Dithmer 2015.02.27

    "In 1998, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe signed a contract with Bell Farms to build a large hog confinement operation on the Rosebud Reservation. Little Thunder led a fight in court against the company due to her concerns about health risks to her people, inhumane treatment of the hogs, and pollution risks to the air, water and land. Little Thunder lost her fight in court, but did not give up and eventually the hog farm was shut down."

    But it did run as late as two years ago. Bell sold to Sun who in 2009 leased the two units to Ag Systems. When the wind was in any direction out of the west, the smell from those two unites went down a creek and pooled in the Little White River bottom right at the town of White River. If it weren't for about a hundred foot elivation change going up into town, there would be days it would be unlivable. I have friends that live north of the bridge where the creek runs into the Little White. When the smell is really bad they tell me that you can see it against the sun.

    The Blindman

  20. Paul Seamans 2015.02.27

    Interesting Bill Dithmer. The two ladies that took it all the way to the Supreme Court were Eva Iyotte and Oleta Mednansky.

  21. Bill Dithmer 2015.02.28

    Paul I dont remember what Eva had to do with it, but Oletas family controls a bunch of ground on the creek and draws north of the unit right on 44 that goes both east and west. Mednanskys, also own the land where the Little White runs into the Big White River north of White River. If anybody wants a pretty drive, or ride, the road that runs along the IGA, Indian Grazing Association is one of the nicer drives in that part of the country.

    The Blindman

  22. Paul Seamans 2015.02.28

    Bill, Hwy 83 used to cross the Big White at Westover then followed the Little White all the way into the town of White River. Beautiful drive. Thanks for the information on the Mednansky's.

  23. mike from iowa 2015.02.28

    OT-Mary Jane is 114 X less deadly than alcohol.

  24. Mary 2015.02.28

    What I find disturbing is that no one seems to care that the animals in these facilities live a horrendous life. They are so crowded, they can't even spread their wings. They are crippled from standing on wire. They have their beaks seared off with a hot wire. The male chicks are ground up alive, because they serve no useful purpose. Why does this not bother anyone?

  25. leslie 2015.03.01

    dithmer, paul-nice conversation-before i was born my ggf built his home place above the white/little white confluence on the hill where 83 veers west a bit, then continues north to thuneville

  26. Bill Dithmer 2015.03.01

    Paul and Leslie, I have coonhunted most of the ground you are talking about.

    There is an interesting spot north of White River east a couple of miles on Little White River Rd. Just before the road heads north, if you turn south through those locked gates, and go about a mile cross country there would be a building out in the middle of nowhere. Inside that steel building is an inground pool heated with artisan water. That water flows from the spring just to the south, through the pool, and then into a dam.

    Even before the building was built if you were within ten miles of Iwans pool, when you got through chasing coondogs, ya just had to soak for at least an hour and have a couple adult beverages. I have seen fog hang around that open pool more then a half mile from the pool. And I have seen ice crystals hang in the air during a full moon that looked like millions of diamonds in the night.

    I've also been there when it was darker then the inside of a black cow, and there is nothing like the combination of northern lights, ganja, a hand full of mushrooms, and cold beer while watching through the rolling fog.

    Another great drive in that part of the country would be the gravel road that goes west just across the Big White on 83. If you drop down over the hill into the bottoms, you'll find thousands of cottonwood trees that are between two and five feet across. In the summer there is some good fishing and camping down there that nobody ever uses.

    Man the stories these places could tell.

    The Blindman

  27. Paul Seamans 2015.03.01

    Bill and Leslie; another nice drive, especially in the fall, is at the top of the hill on Hwy 83 on the north side of the Big White is the gravel road heading east. It will go through the old Postoffice/store of Westover (Westover dates back to the fur trapping days of 1830's). The road winds along the White for about 10 miles and then heads 10 miles north to I90 or the town of Draper. Loaded with big cottonwoods and buffalo berry along the river.

  28. mike from iowa 2015.03.01

    Mary-what are the answers? What are you proposing to do?
    Cornish game hens live two weeks before slaughter. Cornish broilers live two months,are fed to near death because of how they are bred to maximize feed and growth,. Many die of heart problems and have crippled legs. Even free range chickens with out being debeaked can tear each other apart. For biting chickens vapo-rub is a farmers best friend.

    What do you do with all them roosters no one wants? They can't be adopted. Some people might take and raise them for food. There are just too many of them. What do you do?

  29. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.03.01

    Mike, we had some problems with baby chicks pecking each other and we used Vaseline. It was very effective. We almost never had any issues with adult hens pecking others.

    As soon as the babies were big enough they were out during the day to roam the yard. The laying hens were always out too. At night all chickens returned to their houses and we closed the door. Even though there were foxes and coyotes, we didn't lose any fowl to them.

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