Farmers call to action symbol of stakes in Sioux Falls slaughterhouse debate

SIOUX FALLS, SD – A civil war is unfolding in South Dakota agriculture.

This may seem like a bit of a stretch when talking about the debate over Wholestone Farms plans to build a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls.

After all, the main question on the November 8 ballot is voters within the city limits.

There is, however, a larger conflict playing out in the fields and farmyards surrounding the town.

Some producers see the vote as an existential threat that requires action.

And it’s personal.

Prohibition backers are directed and funded by POET.

The Sioux Falls-based company has built a biofuel giant with reported revenues of more than $8 billion a year. They did so with the full support and cooperation of the Midwestern farming community.

It is the farmers who grow the corn for fuel and buy the dried distiller’s grain for animal feed.

It was the farmers who pooled their money in seed cooperatives to build ethanol plants.

And it was the influence of farm state politicians that created the Renewable Fuels Standard, the lifeblood of alternative fuels writ large.

Wholestone Farms is a cooperative owned by approximately 200 farming families, including approximately 75 within 80 km of Sioux Falls.

Now, when farmers are on the verge of realizing a long-sought dream of capturing more value from every pig raised and more control over their business, POET stands in the way.

In the agricultural community, this is perplexing.

John Horters wants his fellow farmers to show commercial strength. The Andover farmer wrote a letter to the editor, submitted to the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

“Friends and neighbors, we must stop selling grain and buying DDG from POET until they remember who made it a success,” the letter read.

A few hundred words in community newspapers across the state are admittedly a stone in a small sling. But Horter said in an interview he felt he had to do something to bring attention to the issue.

“I sell 80% of my maize to the local POET factory,” he told me. “I think it’s something we can do to stand up and make our voices heard. The only way to get attention is to defend ourselves.

Colton farmer Jeff Thompson also picked up the pen and sent a letter to a local newspaper. Thompson points to the top of the flowchart.

“Who runs POET? ” he writes.

Which, of course, is no secret: Jeff Broin, company founder and CEO.

But in conversations with Wholestone, the lawyers, farmers, spokespersons and business leaders who have lined up on either side of the slaughterhouse debate, no one will rarely use Broin’s name.

Instead, they use generic phrases that insinuate without pointing fingers directly.

“There are some people in town who don’t want us,” Sean Simpson, who is working with Wholestone on the project, said after a recent hearing.

Jeff Broin does not do interviews.

A company spokesperson sent this statement to my investigation last week.

“POET remains dedicated to growing value-added agriculture in rural America, but as one of Sioux Falls’ largest employers, we share the concerns expressed by citizens regarding odor issues, water and quality of life in our city. POET does not oppose the project, just the location within the city limits. We will continue to produce high quality, sustainable food ingredients for our valued customers in South Dakota, the United States and around the world.

This is consistent with the message from the beginning. It’s not what, it’s where.

POET’s head office is one mile from the site.

The same goes for Broin’s new home, an impressive structure in a new gated community in Cactus Heights.

“It’s ironic that he can build an ethanol plant near our farms and we don’t have much to say about it. We have to live with that,” Thompson told me. “Broin, through his connections, tries to change the rules and influence voters.”

And it’s personal.

James V. Hayes