part 2 of 2
Rol Hudler looks like an English professor and smells of pipe smoke. A thin, balding man with round glasses, he is the third-generation Hudler to be editor and publisher of the Burlington Record; his son, who has begun working for the paper, will be the fourth. Hudler also is Burlington's mayor, a title he has held since he was 28 years old--27 years ago.
At the very least, the arrangement can get people talking. "Rol still writes all the city council news," says Mark Hillman, who worked at the paper for eight years before quitting last year. Hudler says he has others cover local government, although his best reporter is his wife, Joy.
All of which makes it easy to understand why the chronology of how Midwest's plans came to be public has opponents of the project whispering of conspiracies and collusion.
Hudler says Midwest first approached city council in October. At the meeting, he says, the company indicated its general interest in the area and gave a brief sketch of its plans. Despite what would seem to be the obvious public interest in such a presentation, there was no mention of it in the Record.
Concerned and interested over the prospect of a huge new employer just outside of town, the council arranged for a fact-finding delegation to visit Midwest's hog facility in Hennessey, Oklahoma.
Because Burlington has difficulty attracting physicians, doctors from Denver fly in to see patients once a week. So the city arranged to use the medical plane between the time it dropped off the physicians in the morning and the time it picked them up again that evening.
The nine-member delegation flew down to Oklahoma, viewed Midwest's facilities in what Hudler admits was a hasty visit, and returned. Hudler (who did not go on the trip) reports that the delegation was mostly impressed by the hog plant, although he adds that those who were against it before they left didn't seem to change their minds. Again, though, nothing about Midwest or the city-financed trip appeared in the newspaper.
In fact, the first time the Record ran an article on the proposed hog facility was November 17, nearly a month after the company's first contact with the council. (Locals appeared to have already been tipped off: In the same edition, a letter to the editor warned of the smell and water degradation that could result from hog farms.)
According to the article, Midwest was looking to build a 5,000-sow facility somewhere in the Burlington area. (Its plans have since quadrupled. And with each sow capable of producing up to 20 pigs, Midwest could produce up to 400,000 pigs yearly in Kit Carson County, according to Don Nitchie, director for the Golden Plains Area Cooperative Extension, in Akron.)
Hudler, who unabashedly supports Midwest's move into Kit Carson, says it was an appropriate editorial decision not to publish the news that Midwest was nosing around the area until it actually began purchasing options on land. He notes that his paper did not reveal plans for the proposed trash-incineration plant until that company had secured a site, either.
Since the first article, the paper has diligently covered the company's moves. In December Hudler sent his wife to Hennessey to investigate Midwest's operation there. She wrote a two-part series that covered both sides of the issue thoroughly. Says Hudler, "There was no conspiracy to cover anything up."
A rough poll would probably show that most people who support Midwest live in Burlington, while the opposition appears to be strongest outside the city. Response by the area's elected officials parallels this split. So it is not surprising that, if members of the Burlington City Council's involvement in the pork plan has at times seemed overinvolved, Kit Carson County's elected officials have taken the opposite approach.
The county commissioners have no legal say as to whether Midwest moves into the area. Nevertheless, as a show of good faith, the company approached lawmakers late last year and requested a meeting to explain its proposal. They were turned down.
Commissioner Rick Dykstra says the lawmakers just didn't have time to fit Midwest in. "They never got on our agenda," he remembers. Dykstra adds that neither side bothered arranging another meeting time.
The commissioners did, however, manage to meet with Midwest's opponents. Recently, they sent a letter opposing the company's project to the state water engineer. "The only thing we were doing was trying to protect our natural resources," says LeRoy Herndon, another commissioner. Herndon adds that, in general, he has no problem with hog farms moving into the area.
When members of Congress and nostalgic policy analysts refer to America's small independent farmer, they are talking about cattleman Jim Dobler. He is a booming man, full-faced, with woolly sideburns. He is 42 years old, but the hair that creeps out of the top of his overalls and his flannel shirt is gray. He wears a seed cap and chews a toothpick, and he seems like he couldn't be anywhere else.
The Dobler farm sits on a bend at the end of unpaved County Road 43, a half-dozen miles northwest of Burlington. The 1,500 acres has been in the family ever since Jim's newlywed parents, Delores and Elmer, who'd grown up about ten miles to the north, bought it in 1948. In 1982 Jim's brother, Raymond, moved out to raise dairy cows on his own farm two miles to the east. Jim, who has never married, stayed put. "Jim has never left us," Delores says, "and we're not sorry."
Behind the family's modest, narrow house are pens for the Dobler's 100 or so beef cattle. To the east are 45 dairy cows; next to them stands a building that houses five stainless-steel milking stalls. The Dobler farm ships 4,500 pounds of milk--about 560 gallons--every other day.
Until recently, the local milk market has been fairly stable. This year, however, because of a surplus, the price dropped fifty cents per hundred pounds. Jim's buyers have told him to expect to lose another dollar off that price by next year.
Worse, Jim says he has heard rumors that western Kansas is experiencing an influx of huge dairy farmers from California, some with as many as 2,400 cows. The prospect of that much milk flooding the local market is unnerving. "I don't even want to think about what will happen if they move in," he says.
With big farms on his mind so much, it is hardly surprising that Dobler became alarmed when he learned of Midwest's plans to move in south of his property. Since then, Dobler, with the help of Travis and Hillman, has become the point man in the opposition to Midwest's attempts to settle in Kit Carson.
The three have been remarkably effective. Soon after they caught wind of Midwest's proposal, the men formed an opposition group, Alliance Conserving Tomorrow, which quickly circulated a petition (and collected 550 signatures, according to Dobler). The group also purchased sophisticated newspaper ads warning of the disintegration of small-town life when corporate farms move in.
Some Midwest opponents have tried a more direct approach. Several farmers threatened to pull their money out of local banks if the institutions did not come out against the corporate hog farmers. Others stalked up and down Main Street, dropping in on merchants to remind them that one was either for or against corporate hog farms--and that if one was in favor, one's business could drop off considerably.
The dispute over Midwest has even turned personal. Predictably, Mike Hendricks seems to have received the brunt of the attack. He was turned in to the real estate commission on charges of a conflict of interest. Last Christmas he received unsigned cards showing two pigs having sex.
Recently, he has been called at home in the night. A typical call, he says, goes something like this: "You pig-loving son of a bitch," and then a hangup. His children have been harassed at school. "The only thing I can't understand is the hate," he says. "An opinion's one thing. But this--this I don't understand."
Dobler and Travis admit some of their supporters "got emotional" and did things they perhaps shouldn't have. Says Travis, "It's divided the community, that's for sure."
ACT also hired a lawyer.
Wayne Foreman is no small-town attorney. He works for what is arguably the state's most politically connected law firm, Denver's Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland.
Nor is Foreman a stranger to controversies over large pig farms. Several years ago he was hired by oilman Philip Anschutz, who was waging a high-profile battle against his Weld County neighbors, the Bass brothers of Texas. The Basses wanted to situate their National Hog Farm downwind from Anschutz's exclusive hunting ranch. He preferred they didn't. Anschutz lost, and National Hog Farms now houses 17,000 sows outside of Kersey.
But Foreman has had his victories, too. In 1992 he represented a group of Washington County farmers in a fight against Western Pork, another huge hog farm. Foreman's hardball tactics--he sued the county commission--paid off. Western moved to Yuma County before the lawsuit went to trial.
Foreman says his initial advice to the members of ACT was similar to that which he gave the anti-hog residents of Washington County. He told them to convince the Kit Carson commissioners to enact county zoning laws and then to use them retroactively to disallow Midwest's proposal. Attachments to property rights run strong in Kit Carson, however, and the commissioners declined to consider any restrictions.
The loudest complaint by far from opponents of hog farms is that they stink. (Although how bad seems to depend on whether you're for hog farms in general. "Pigs smell," acknowledges Brown, Yuma's superintendent. "But," he adds sarcastically, "the funny thing out here is that the giant cattle feedlots don't.")
Yet Colorado has no statutes specifically addressing agricultural odors. So the next obvious route of attack for Midwest's opponents was the hog company's need for millions of gallons of local water.
From the way the state water engineer has favored hog farms in the past--despite having to bend the law to do it--there was no reason for Midwest to believe it had anything to worry about.
Like much of eastern Colorado, Kit Carson County's water is overappropriated. That means that in order to sustain the water table over a period of 100 years--the state's goal--the area should be pumping out only a certain amount. Unfortunately, in Kit Carson, current usage is four times greater than that amount. Other nearby water districts are similarly overused.
As a result, no new large-capacity wells have been permitted in the county for nearly two decades. And new small-capacity wells--those that pump fifty gallons per minute or less--are permitted grudgingly. Only one is allowed for every new business.
But hog farms, which are scrupulously clean (visitors must shower before they enter the facilities), need a huge amount of water to stay sanitary. So the corporations that have moved into Colorado are aggressive about finding loopholes in the state law.
For example, about two years ago, recalls Purushottam Dass, an assistant state water engineer, his office received a flurry of applications for single commercial wells from a group of farmers who all lived in the same area. The requests were granted. Their land was then bought up by Seaboard Farms, a corporate hog concern, which now had its necessary wells.
Other large hog farms have been even more brazen. Dass says in recent years several have applied to the state water engineer for multiple wells, reasoning that each building of the new hog facility was, in effect, a separate business. That way, a single hog company with, say, six buildings would be entitled to six wells. Strangely, the state has bought the logic and issued multiple well permits to single hog farms.
Even by these shifting standards, however, Midwest's application for new wells was bold. Dass says the state has granted up to six or seven separate wells for a single hog business: Midwest applied for 25 separate wells, claiming that its Kit Carson facility was, in fact, 25 distinct businesses.
"When you added up the water they were applying for," says Dass, "it was more like three or four large-capacity irrigation wells."
Midwest's application for so much water offended local farmers who'd tried to secure additional water for their land. "My dad and I applied for a large-capacity well in the late 1970s, and we were denied," complains Jim Dobler. "And we weren't the only ones. Now, if I was denied, why should we allow these guys to suck the equivalent of four irrigation wells? Maybe that's selfish. But who was here first--Jim Dobler or Midwest Farms?"
Local politics also seem to have influenced the fate of Midwest's water application. In late January, the popularly elected members of the Plains Groundwater Irrigation District, which sets policy but can only advise the state on water decisions, voted unanimously to recommend that the state deny Midwest's application. (Other local boards, Dass says, have generally recommended approval of big hog farms.)
Stan Murphy, manager for the district, denies the board was influenced by the obvious anti-hog sentiment among the water district's constituents. "We've been used as a whipping boy for this thing, but this is not about hogs," he says. "We just don't think we can afford the water.
"I'm not against people making money. But we shouldn't have to violate laws to do it or wink and close our eyes for a few minutes while it happens."
In addition to the local water district's recommendation against approval, the state water engineer found himself the target of a prolific lobbying effort: Over 100 letters flooded the state office from ACT, urging denial of Midwest's well applications. On February 3, the engineer complied, rejecting Midwest's request for more than two dozen new wells.
Midwest hasn't given up on its plans to bring 20,000 sows to Kit Carson County. Last week Bowker said the company would apply to the state for permission to use water from the high-capacity irrigation wells already drilled on the Booth and Walkinshaw land. No new wells will be necessary, he says. Instead, Midwest would pump water from the two sites throughout its facility.
State approval is not automatic. Dass says Midwest must first gather a decade's worth of documents detailing the historical use of the wells, and then convince the state it will use no more water than has been pumped in the past. The company also must seek a variance that will allow it to change the water use from irrigation to hog-specific applications.
Of course, Midwest's new application to the state means that ACT will be around for a while longer, as well. "If they're going to persist, so will we," says Wayne Foreman.
While that happens, Hudler says he will try to keep Burlington from tearing itself apart. "It's been getting pretty wicked," the mayor says. "The people who are making it a divisive issue in the community are a small group. Still, I hope that when the thing is in place, all the pieces can be put back together again."
Bowker promises the opposition to Midwest will disappear once Kit Carson residents discover what a good neighbor the company is. "Anytime you have a new enterprise coming in, you're going to have people who are opposed, whether it's banking or publishing or hog farming," he says. "We've found that once the project is built and up and running, people don't have a problem with it. Afterwards, they just kind of go back to their business. They don't come up to us and apologize, and we don't expect them to."
Yet if the experience of Kansas is any barometer, Midwest shouldn't expect Burlington to be a friendly place too soon. "A lot of it still hasn't healed yet," says Steve Lincoln, a reporter for the Goodland Daily News who covered Midwest's expansion plans there. "People who were for it have continued to lose business from people who were against it.
"And I still hear remarks made about it even now."
end of part 2
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.