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CORPORATE SWINE

A BIG-TIME HOG FARM LANDS IN THE MIDDLE OF SMALL-TOWN POLITICS IN KIT CARSON COUNTY.

How Midwest Farms ended up in Kit Carson County in the first place depends on whom you talk to.

The county, which is bisected by I-70 and shares an eastern border with Sherman County in Kansas, has always relied on agriculture to pay the bills. Recent attempts to bring in other businesses resulted in two notable proposals: one for a new federal prison and another for a huge trash incinerator. Community opposition killed both projects, and locals still bring a healthy dose of skepticism to new economic-development ventures.

Midwest Farms Inc. couldn't feel more different about its plans for growth. The private company, which is based in Wisconsin, operates hog-producing facilities in Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota. Together the facilities are home to about 20,000 sows. Owner Ronald Houser also heads Midwest Security Insurance Co. of Wisconsin.

Despite the considerable size of his hog operations, Houser has calculated that he could do better, and he has recently looked to expand. The first site Midwest Farms settled on, early last year, was in Sherman County. The company wanted a home midway between its South Dakota and Oklahoma operations, Houser explained.

Kansas had an anti-corporate-farming statute for nearly twenty years, which specifically prohibited large companies from owning hog and dairy farms. But last year corporate hog companies got a break when the state liberalized the law, permitting individual county commissions to accept or reject the large farms.

As a sort of pressure valve, however, the lawmakers also allowed for a commission's decision to be overridden by county voters. On November 8 Sherman's residents did just that, voting 2-1 not to allow Midwest in. The next day, says Mayor Hudler, Midwest arrived in Burlington.

Apart from the obvious reasons--the short move west presented a relatively minor change in plans for the company--it is unclear exactly how Midwest settled on Kit Carson County. "We were invited to come here by the local economic people," says Bowker.

"That's news to me," says Jo Downey of the East-Central Council of Local Governments, which oversees economic development for Kit Carson County. "We've never had any direct or indirect contact with anybody with the hogs."

Regardless, Kit Carson County made sense for Midwest. "We came here because of the terrain, the weather, the people, the agricultural mentality," explains Bowker. "Plus, Colorado is not anti-corporate farming."

Another reason, left unspoken, is Kit Carson's regulatory environment. Specifically, there isn't much of one. The county has no health department--it shares a state inspector with several other plains counties over a huge geographical area--and there is no zoning. "Even if we wanted to make them go away," Mayor Hudler points out, "we couldn't."

And not everyone wants giant hog farms to take their business elsewhere. Cross the county's northern border into Yuma County, and it is easy to find supporters.

Jack Adams is the manager for the Washington-Yuma Water District, which sets water policy for the area. A 32-year resident of the area, Adams says the hog farms have lit an economic fire in the county. "You bet we're doing better," he says. "You could call any merchant in Yuma and ask them, and none of 'em have a problem with hog farming."

Yuma city manager Jim Drinkhouse couldn't agree more. "From 1989 to 1993, our sales tax was fairly constant--you could about bank on it," he says. "Then, this past year we had a 15 to 20 percent sales-tax increase. I suppose we can't prove it's the hog facilities. But it would be nothing else."

Yuma is in the process of planning a new recreation center with the increased revenue, Drinkhouse says. Also, he says, "we've got about four or five housing starts directly attributable to the hog operations. We're normally lucky to get one or two. So we're experiencing a little bit of a boom here."

The hog farms, he concludes, "are a hell of a business."
Yuma's success has not escaped the notice of Kit Carson County. Most alluring is that Midwest's proposal would provide 200 jobs. That offers a solution to one of Kit Carson's most vexing problems.

Last year the number of students in the Burlington school district dropped by thirty, bringing the district's population to the lowest it has been in ten years. "People my age just aren't staying around," says Mike Hendricks, a 35-year-old city councilman.

"There were no layoffs this year," adds Superintendent Red Mosier. "But if we keep losing students, then we're going to be reducing staff."

Not in Yuma's schools, where, says Superintendent Wayne Brown, this year marked the first time in a decade that his student body didn't shrink. He says he expects to add students as the hog farms expand.

"You make dang sure that I come across as being in favor of these things," says Brown. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

On a recent, unseasonably warm winter day, Mike Hendricks was stopped by a Colorado State Patrol roadblock on the western edge of Burlington. The troopers were making sure everyone's registrations and licenses were in order.

Hendricks is third-generation to the area. As the local mortician, his grandfather prepared the residents of Seibert, which is thirty miles west of Burlington, for a life after farming. Mike's father grew up outside Burlington working as a farmer. When Mike was ten the family moved into the city and his dad began selling real estate.

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