part 1 of 2
It took less than 24 hours for Galen Travis to go from feeling like a very lucky man to someone whose luck had run out.
Last fall, Travis, a beefy-faced man who grows alfalfa and wheat outside of Burlington, thirty miles from the Kansas border in eastern Colorado, was driving home from Indiana with his brother. Along the way, he passed a huge hog farm.
"It lasted for about seven or eight miles," Travis says of the smell, which he describes as something that could give open car windows a bad name. "I remember commenting to my brother how we were lucky not to have to live next to that. And, ironically, the next night I got the phone call."
It was from neighbor Jim Dobler, who told Travis that an up-and-coming Wisconsin company was planning to build the largest hog farm in the state next door. If the plan went through, Midwest Farms Inc.'s new $80 million facility in Kit Carson County could double the number of hogs produced in Colorado.
Midwest still isn't sure it will raise its pigs in Kit Carson County. Two weeks ago the state water engineer denied the company's application to drill additional wells on the more than 8,000 acres it purchased options for late last year.
The company considers that a temporary setback. Vice president Greg Bowker says he will try to convince the state to allow Midwest to use irrigation wells already drilled on the property. "We will persist," he says.
That will do little for the spirit of cohesiveness in Burlington and Kit Carson County. Midwest's proposal to locate the huge hog farm there has split the community like nothing else in recent memory. "I don't think anybody expected this wouldn't be controversial," says Rol Hudler, Burlington's long-time mayor. "But I don't think anybody expected people to be so radical, for people to be so ballistic."
The emotional toll on the county of 7,500, about half of whom live in Burlington, has been considerable. Farmers threatened to withdraw their money from local savings-and-loans if the bankers did not publicly oppose the hogs. Other merchants were warned that a boycott was the alternative to being pro-pig. A city councilman has received hate mail and late-night harassing phone calls. Longtime friendships have been strained.
Though it is not over, the story of Midwest and Kit Carson offers a window into the turmoil that can result when a large company woos a small town. With no zoning regulations, Kit Carson County--and much of eastern Colorado--easily finds itself subject to blueprints drawn up hundreds of miles away.
The result is that storeowners who want more customers or foundering public schools that want more students clash with ranchers and farmers who are afraid of losing their rural lifestyle. And there are the inevitable conflicts of interest that result when well-meaning elected officials see the potential for profits.
In fact, by the time the state denied Midwest's applications to drill wells, the company's battle to do business in Kit Carson County had very little to do with water--and a lot to do with local politics.
Pigs are nothing new in eastern Colorado, although giant facilities that resemble assembly lines are. In recent years, four large hog farms have sprung up in Phillips, Yuma and Sedgwick counties. Another is being built in Baca County, in the southeastern corner of the state. And Weld County has National Hog Farms, the state's largest facility.
The result has been a surge in the hogs that call Colorado home. In the past decade the number of hogs produced here has more than doubled. At the same time, though, the number of hog farmers has shrunk. In 1984 the state had 3,000 farms that produced pigs; last year the total was 1,600.
Such statistics have mobilized increasingly sophisticated opposition to large corporate hog farms wherever they've gone. Particularly vocal are individuals and groups organized around a sentimental attachment to a rural America filled with small farms and single-tractor families.
"We're very opposed to corporate agriculture in general, and corporate hog farming in particular," says Melissa Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. "I personally would rather drive through eastern Colorado and see 1,000 small hog farms than one giant operation."
Such sentiment can at times seem to spring more from the heart than from reason. Says Denise Hase, director of the Northeast Colorado Health Department, which covers six counties in eastern Colorado: "It has become such an emotional issue that many people lose sight of the technological facts and are more concerned with what their father and grandfather thought of hogs."
Yet, as is the case with all agriculture, large-scale operations seem to be the future. Nearly 80 percent of Colorado's pigs are now raised on farms with more than 1,000 head. Ten years ago it was closer to a third.
That trend is likely to continue, particularly in Colorado, which is one of only a handful of states in the region without specific laws banning corporate farms. Nine other states, including neighbors Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, have statutes that favor small farmers over agribusiness.
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.
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
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Bars Will Lose a Ton on Drink Sales If They Let People Smoke Weed
- Thirty Mind-Blowing Murals at the Heart of Project Colfax
- The Mexican Says Adiós to Denver