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CORPORATE SWINE

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

Mike, who has startling blue eyes, neatly graying hair and a Jay Leno jaw housing a pinch of snuff, had no doubts about which route he'd be taking. "I never wanted to be a farmer," he says. "I just couldn't see sitting on a tractor all day." So when he returned to Burlington from Colorado State University, he took over the real estate business.

There was also no question that he'd give back to the community some day. Hendricks is a nine-year veteran of the school board and is finishing out a four-year term as a Burlington city councilman.

As he pulls to the side of the road for the trooper, Hendricks starts giggling. "Hey, Mike," the trooper says, stooping to the window. "Got your license and registration?" Mike only laughs harder, which inspires the trooper to begin giggling.

"No," Hendricks says, his body shaking. The trooper breaks into a full-fledged laugh. Across the street, another trooper begins writing a ticket to a motorist.

"Well," the trooper says when the mirth has died down, "when were you born, Mike?" Hendricks tells him. As the trooper leaves he shakes his head. "I'll give you a call later and get the other stuff," he says.

If anyone should know how, in a small town, duty and neighborliness can sometimes get tangled, Mike Hendricks should. After all, when Midwest Farms came into Burlington last fall, it was Hendricks who was the first to be accused of a conflict of interest.

Which is this: Hendricks is a member of the city council, which overwhelmingly supports Midwest's proposal to move into Kit Carson County. Hendricks also is the real estate broker who negotiated for Midwest to get its hands on farmland to the south and west of Burlington. As such, he stands to win a whopping commission if the sale, rumored to be valued at over $1,000 an acre, goes through.

Worse--for appearances, anyway--Greg Bowker, Midwest's local representative, has for all practical purposes set up shop in Hendricks's real estate office. Occasionally, Bowker even answers Hendricks's phone. "Hendricks Realty has been working with us to find land," Bowker says simply. "They obviously are in support of the project."

No kidding, says Mark Hillman, a fierce opponent of the project whose father's farm borders the land Midwest plans to convert to the hog farm. "Hendricks's office has been Hog Central recently," he says.

Midwest secured its 8,500 acres of Kit Carson land through a mixture of hard bargaining and good luck. In late November the company signed an offer to purchase 28 quarters (there are 160 acres to a quarter) from Frank Booth of Greeley. Booth, a cattleman, was not particularly averse to big business. Recalls Galen Travis, "Let's just say I once watched him sort cattle in a three-piece suit."

Booth's land had been on the market since last spring. He'd had several offers to purchase smaller parts of it. But potential buyers were told the land was available in an all-or-nothing deal only for $3.5 million, according to Travis, who says he tried to buy some of it.

By the time Midwest came along, however, Booth was getting eager to sell. He'd been diagnosed with cancer recently and wanted to settle his affairs. He died late last year, on December 1, just weeks after striking the deal to sell his property to Midwest.

With the Booth parcel in hand, Midwest began shopping for more land. In early December the company made a deal to purchase 25 quarters from the Walkinshaw family, which owned property adjacent to the old Booth place.

Hendricks admits the family was resistant to the idea at first. The land hadn't been on the market and, he says, the Walkinshaws were all too aware of local resistance to the project.

Eventually, the family agreed to the sale. Hendricks says Walkinshaw satisfied himself after polling relatives who lived next to another hog farm. Travis counters that Midwest's offer escalated to the point where the family would have been foolish not to sell. (Steve Walkinshaw could not be reached for comment.)

As for his part in the brokering, Hendricks says he did not have a conflict of interest. He points out that the city council has no legal authority over Midwest moving into Kit Carson County and that the company is being offered no financial incentives from Burlington. His support for the project, he says, is driven by what he thinks is best for the area.

"I believe in this, I truly do," says Hendricks. "I checked it out, made bunches of calls to satisfy myself. And I really believe the economic benefits to the area are going to be worth it. I spoke to people in Yuma County, and it's been a blessing there."

He also stresses that he was operating as a businessman, not a councilman, when he began working for Midwest. "It was just another land deal to me," he says. "I did this before city council even got involved."

Which, observe Midwest's opponents, brings up another point. "Why didn't we hear about this earlier?" asks Travis.

end of part 1

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