Watching the Watchdogs

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Protecting the environment in our rural communities takes more than getting educated, speaking out, writing letters and attending meetings. It also means bird-dogging those dry documents that fill our county courthouses to the brim. By digging up some of those documents and asking questions, Land Stewardship Project members in southern Minnesota’s Mower County have recently learned that their feedlot officer may have benefited financially from the construction of a mega-livestock factory in their community. What we appear to have here is a conflict of interest, which is a civil servant no-no. We also appear to have yet another example of private citizens showing government officials how to do their jobs.

Here’s the situation: In March, Lowell Franzen, the feedlot officer for Mower County, obtained for himself a feedlot permit for a 1,996 animal-unit hog confinement operation to be located on around 14 acres of land he owned in Lyle Township. That many animal units translates into 4,832 swine more than 300 pounds (sows) and 1,264 pigs under 55 pounds. Such an operation would be the biggest hog raising facility in Mower County, according to the Austin Daily Herald. Two weeks after receiving the permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Franzen sold the undeveloped farmland to the Santos Group, LLC, for $292,000; that price is approximately $243,000 above market value. Five days later he transferred the feedlot permit to the Santos Group.

The officers of the Santos Group are Nick, Nate and Tyler Holden, brothers associated with Holden Farms, a Northfield-based company that is the 19th largest hog producer in the country, according to Successful Farming magazine.

We know about all this manic paper shuffling related to one factory hog operation because determined citizens dug up the relevant documents. LSP has placed those documents (permits, letters, etc.) on its website. Taken as a whole, this paper trail lays out in black and white what exactly occurred in a relatively short amount of time.

Citizens dug up these documents after some troubling issues arose over the construction of the operation. For one thing, when building began this spring, they noticed that one of the buildings was the size of a football field—a size that was a huge surprise to people who thought this was a facility being erected by someone from the community. Neighbors who visited the site also noticed that the project consisted of three buildings, not two. It had been their understanding there were to be only two buildings.

It also became clear early on that neighbors of the site who raise livestock were afraid to speak out against the project. Since Franzen is the county feedlot officer, he has the power to retaliate against critics who have livestock of their own, says Tim Carroll, a neighbor to the facility.

“I went to the Mower County Attorney and said ‘I think we have a problem here. I have people who are concerned about retaliation about speaking out about this facility,’ ” Carroll told a reporter for the Austin Daily Herald.

County officials said since the MPCA had issued the permit, it was out of their hands. The chilling effect of having a feedlot officer financially involved in a mega livestock facility is important to note. The point here is not that Franzen threatened to retaliate against livestock-raising neighbors who may have criticized the project (there is absolutely no evidence that he did). What is important to note is that his official position as the feedlot officer made retaliation a possibility. That possibility suppresses open dialogue about a controversial issue such as the construction of a large scale livestock operation.

Keep in mind that part of the job of a county feedlot officer is to make sure livestock operations are built and operated in a manner that protects the environment. They are also supposed to be the go-to person for neighbors of a facility who have concerns about living next to millions of gallons of liquid manure. How did the county, or the MPCA for that matter, expect community concerns to be addressed in an environment so saturated with apparent conflict of interest?

For what it’s worth, Franzen is the first feedlot officer Mower County has ever had, so I suppose one could make the argument that he didn’t have much precedent to work from when it came to the dos and don’ts of executing his job. But county and state officals should certainly know conflict of interest when they see it.

After citizens dug through the paperwork surrounding the permitting and sale of the land to the Santos Group and found out how Franzen had flipped the land, so to speak, the county took notice. On Aug. 3 Franzen was put on paid administrative leave. An attorny has been hired by the county to investigate the case.

Carroll and some other local citizens have filed a lawsuit against Franzen, alleging he used his position to influence both Mower County and MPCA staff to obtain permits for the operation (MPCA officials have told the Austin Daily Herald that agency did nothing wrong in the permitting process). Neighbors would like the courts to issue a temporary injunction halting construction at the feedlot site until the allegations can be investigated.

Unless an injunction is issued, the hog factory will be finished soon, and it will begin pumping out pork. Once that happens, it will be next to impossible to close down the facility, no matter what shenanigans went into its establishment. A giant livestock facility will be put into operation, helping move Holden Farms even further up the Pork Powerhouse ladder while yet another rural community pays a dear price.

Perhaps even worse is the possibility that this will set a precedent for similar fancy footwork involving local officials and mega livestock companies. Other livestock giants will no doubt note that Holden has accomplished its ultimate goal: construction of a hog factory they knew would not be popular in the township. Putting up with the bad publicity surrounding a feedlot officer’s land deal is a small price to pay when you’re trying to grease the wheels of factory bacon.

When a firm the size of Holden Farms attempts to establish one of its mega-facilities in a county, local citizens sit up and take notice. Many rural residents know that when a mega pork company builds a facility, it means lots of liquid manure, lots of stink and lots of wealth leaving the area. But when a local resident who happens to be a feedlot officer does the preliminary paperwork for one of these facilities, things can slip by in a much quieter manner.

That’s what’s happened in Mower County—until a few watchdogs sunk their teeth into some arcane paperwork and started shaking.

2 Responses to “Watching the Watchdogs”

  1. Jeanne Dubord

    Does anyone know of any connection of John Hanson the former owner of Kwik Trip with Smithfield or Christianson farm or anyone else. How about the farm coming into Vernon county? I can’t find out who the backers are , I have heard both John Hanson who own Star Blend Feeds now and Christianson Farms.
    Does anyone know where it would be filed.
    Anyone have any luck reversing a decision of a livestock facility permit which he was suppose to have but last week he became exempt from it? The Land and Water Dept. wanted him to have it and it was always said he was required but now they just gave it to him.

  2. Stephanie Henriksen

    I hope Jeanne has gotten some help with this. I see her message dates back two months. The Mower County case is significant to us here in Rice County because this is the home base of Holden Farms.