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The many faces of the Sioux Falls slaughterhouse debate

Farmers, business leaders, politicians and residents all have a stake in the Nov. 8 election. But it's only a few thousand voters in the city limits that will make the decision.

Wholestone Farms overhead
Aerial view of the Wholestone Farms customer butcher shop near Benson Road exit on Interstate 229 in Sioux Falls.
Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

How about a slaughterhouse?

Depends on who's doing the sniffing.

When it comes to the debate over Wholestone Farms’ plans for a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, there’s no lack of noses, or lawyers, with input on the answer.

But the issue is much more than a subjective evaluation of odor. Other factors include water needs and treatment, transportation infrastructure and labor supply.

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That’s what Sioux Falls voters will weigh on Nov. 8 when they decide whether to change local ordinances to forbid any future slaughterhouses. The result has implications not just for people who live and work in northeast Sioux Falls, but for the broader business community in the city and agriculture interests across the region.

Occupation and location affect each person’s perspective on the debate. A pork producer looks at it one way and may not consider what it’s like working in a nearby industrial office complex.

A downtown Sioux Falls resident may not have the macroeconomic perspective of regional agribusiness.

But only residents inside city limits can vote.

Because the Forum News Service serves the broader community, it’s instructive to break down the elements of the debate and how each plays into a voter’s decision in the final days of the campaign.

There are many players. Here’s a summary of the people and organizations involved and their role in the campaign.

Wholestone Farms

The farmer-owned cooperative has about 200 members, including about 75 within 50 miles of Sioux Falls. The co-op was formed in 2018 to purchase an existing pork plant in Fremont, Nebraska. That facility’s capacity is about 3 million hogs per year, but the company is preparing to add a second shift which could double that amount.

Collectively, the members of the coop produce about 12 million pigs each year.

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The Sioux Falls facility

The plant would be located east of the Benson Road exit from Interstate 229. The total cost is estimated at $500 million and could eventually employ more than 1,000 people. It would start with one shift with a capacity of 3 million hogs and potential to double that with an additional shift.

WSF-Plant-Front-1.jpeg
An architectural rendering of Wholestone Farm's hog processing plant planned for Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Contributed / Wholestone Farms

It would use about a million gallons of water a day, but Wholestone is asking for 1.5 to 2 million gallons a day from the Sioux Falls Public Works department.

The plans include a $45 million wastewater treatment plant with a discharge of up to 3 million gallons per day. The difference in the permits for the amount coming in and the amount going out comes from the fluids that a pig — or any mammal — carries while alive. Plus, the higher discharge amount allows for equalization of the flow in and out. For instance, they could stop outflow to do maintenance on equipment without halting production.

Smart Growth Sioux Falls

The group is opposed to Wholestone’s plans. It formed in the summer to gather signatures for an initiated measure asking voters to ban on additional slaughterhouses in the city limits.

Smart Growth is backed by a coalition of businesses and organizations, many of which are on either side of Interstate 229 near the Wholestone location. The group’s “stop the stink” campaign focuses on the potential for odor, but they are also citing concerns about water quality of the Big Sioux River, the increased truck traffic and exacerbating the labor shortage in Sioux Falls.

Financial backing for Smart Growth, according to reports filed so far with the city clerk’s office, comes from a variety of sources but top donors are biofuels producer POET and JDS Industries, a Sioux Falls wholesaler that sells trophies, promotional items and gifts.

MORE: Catch up on the Wholestone Farms issue

Sioux Falls Open for Business

The campaign committee formed in response to Smart Growth Sioux Falls and represents an array of business organizations and most of the state’s agriculture commodity groups. Open for Business opposes the slaughterhouse ban, saying that Wholestone was several years into planning, had purchased land based on existing zoning and began the permitting process.

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To stop that now, would set a bad precedent that Sioux Falls isn’t friendly to business overall and to industrial interests in particular, they contend.

The group’s business backers include the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, the South Dakota Retailers Association and the South Dakota Municipal League. Wholestone also contributes to Open for Business.

The butcher shop

So far, the only construction that has taken place on the Wholestone site is an 1,800-square-foot custom butcher shop. Wholestone believes that the butcher shop, which will slaughter and process individual hogs for the coop’s members, qualifies as a slaughterhouse under the city code.

Sioux Falls ordinances define slaughterhouse as: “A facility for the slaughtering and processing of animals and the refining of their byproducts.”

Wholestone butcher 2.2.jpg
Wholestone Farms butcher shop in northeast Sioux Falls. The City of Sioux Falls issued an occupancy permit for the building on Oct. 7.
Patrick Lalley / Forum News Service

That definition is key to the debate beyond the election.

Smart Growth filed a lawsuit against the city asking a judge to halt any new permits for the butcher shop and rescind several that had already been issued. A trial on the issue won't happen until after the election on Nov. 8.

If voters approve the ban on slaughterhouses, as Smart Growth wants, then the legal actions will surely continue. The result will determine whether the butcher shop is the foot in the door that Wholestone needs to continue with its plans.

If voters reject the ban, then that question is irrelevant. That doesn’t mean, however, that the legal wrangling will end. It may just move to a different challenge, but that’s unknown at this point.

Wholestone held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the butcher shop on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

Lawyers

Where there’s a lawsuit there are lawyers, in this case several, and they’re not newbies.

Smart Growth hired Brendan Johnson, the former U.S. attorney in South Dakota and son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.

Today Johnson is a partner with Robins Kaplan, a national firm with offices in seven cities. They represent big clients in big cases across the country.

The city of Sioux Falls hired Reed Rasmussen of Siegel, Barnett & Schutz, based in Aberdeen.

Wholestone is represented by Steve Landon with Cadwell Law Firm. The Sioux Falls firm was founded in 1891 and has a rich history in the city.

The Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce

Several pro-business groups have lined up behind Wholestone because, they say, turning away a company that followed the prescribed process and invested in the community is a bad idea. That potential could make other businesses leery of coming to Sioux Falls.

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Jeff Griffin, president and CEO of the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce.
Contributed

The biggest name among those organizations is The Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce. The degree to which the chamber, with more than 2,000 members, can sway voters is unknown. But Jeff Griffin, president and CEO, said the city can’t cherry pick which industries it likes or doesn’t like. Housing and workforce challenges are real, but there are solutions.

“What are we going to do, dig a moat around the city and stop letting people move here?” Griffin said in a recent interview.

Commodity groups

The reality is that very few members of the state’s politically powerful commodity groups get to vote in the city election. But they are unanimous in their support of Wholestone because it represents an opportunity for farmers to capture more of the value of their product.

On the list are the associations representing soybeans, corn, pork, beef, poultry and dairy. The Farm Bureau is a supporter as is the South Dakota Agri-Business Association.

They may not have votes, but they have money. The S.D. Soybean Association contributed $250,000 to the Open for Business campaign.

Smithfield Foods

The quiet giant in the debate over new slaughterhouses, is the one we already have.

041420.N.DR.COVID-SMITHFIELD1.jpg
Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Smithfield Foods pork processing plant near Falls Park is — fairly or not — an opaque backdrop of any discussion. The potential for odor, pollution, traffic, and labor relations are all measured against 111 years of history of the plant, still known commonly as John Morrell.

Wholestone’s plant, at full capacity, would process about the same number of pigs as Smithfield but with less than one-third the workforce. There’s speculation that perhaps Wholestone’s plant could cause Smithfield to shut down. That’s unlikely, say agriculture economists, because the pork industry needs more capacity.

The company is owned by the WH Group, which exists under the broader authority of the Chinese government.

Jeff Broin

There wouldn’t be a vote on slaughterhouses if not for Jeff Broin.

Jeff Broin
Jeff Broin

The founder and CEO of POET is the quiet hand behind Smart Growth. His company donated $25,000 to the campaign committee, according to the first round of disclosures. But more importantly, the company’s headquarters and his new home — in a gated section of the Cactus Heights neighborhood — are within about a mile of the Wholestone site, though in opposite directions.

The details of the origin story of Smart Growth are not known publicly. Broin doesn’t give interviews and a POET spokesperson answers only emailed questions with vague assertions. So, the degree to which the biofuels magnate’s hand is at the helm is unknown. But there’s no disputing his influence. That frustrates the agriculture community, whose time and treasure were dedicated to ensuring ethanol’s viability.

The ballot

The actual question that Sioux Falls voters are considering is a confusing bit of electoral logistics.

A “Yes” vote means the ordinance passes. If that happens, whether Wholestone’s butcher shop qualifies a slaughterhouse is still an open question for the courts.

A “No” vote means everything stays the way it is.

So, in the big picture, a “No” supports Wholestone Farms plans to build a pork processing plant.

“Yes” means you don’t want Wholestone to go forward.

Sioux Falls voters

How many voters are we talking about?

Four years ago, turnout in the city was about 65%. Today there are about 122,000 registered voters. If the trend holds, that equates to about 79,000 people who will make the decision.

But that’s the total. Elections are won in the middle. A small subset of the population will actually decide the result.

For instance, if the margin is 55 to 45% — a healthy victory — it’s a difference of 7,900.

If it’s 53 to 47%, the difference is 4,740.

And if it’s a close one, let’s say 51 to 49%, that means 1,580 voters were the difference between winning and losing.

There are about 300,000 residents in the Sioux Falls metropolitan area and thousands more in the concentric rings of the economic footprint.

All the players will be watching.

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at plalley@siouxfallslive.com.
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