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The Premier North Iowa Farm Appraiser Staff


Staff: Gary Howell, Fred Greder, Barb Bowen and Chris Staudt

PRESTAGE PORK:   Let the professionals do their job.

RIGHT UP FRONT, let's establish why I'm sharing my observations on the Prestage Pork processing plant issue.  I am NOT trying to persuade anybody to become pork plant supporters.   Those of us who work at this small office are pretty evenly split on the issue.  My own immediate family is two for and two against. 

The sole purpose for sharing these observations is to set some things straight with regard to many statements made at the City Council meetings and letters to the Editor.  There has been so much misinformation. 

I'm going to borrow a segment from the 60 Minutes TV program in the 1970s.  The segment was called Point/Counterpoint where a liberal and a conservative commentator would debate a particular issue.

Let`s start with this gem.  Someone said during the public comment section of one of the Council Meetings that, "The pork is going to China, the profits are going to North Carolina and we get the pollution."  It sounds like something  Jesse Jackson might have said during the 1984 Iowa Presidential caucuses.   It has a certain  rhyming ring to it but, it is misleading on every level.  Let's break it down.

POINT - The pork is going to China.

COUNTER POINT  - We should thank our lucky stars that China or Mexico or Japan want what we produce in abundance - livestock and livestock feed.  We're capable of producing much more than we can consume.  Our national economy would envy us for being net exporters. 

POINT - The profits are going to North Carolina. 

COUNTERPOINT -  I'm sure the business model for pork processing is just like nearly all businesses where the line item for wages is the biggest item on the budget - usually much bigger than the profit margin.  More of the margin above the hog procurement costs would stay in North Iowa than would go to North Carolina.

POINT - We get the pollution.

COUNTERPOINT - That statement insults the professional economic development people at the local and State levels and the environmental protection regulators at the State and National levels.  The project would not be approved if there was any chance of significant pollution. 

Which leads right into the next point.

POINT - One writer of a letter to the editor stated that the hog industry in Iowa generates 22 billion gallons of manure every year.

COUNTERPOINT - The writer was implying that this is a bad thing.   I haven't tried to do any fact checking.  Let's assume the number of gallons is accurate.

Since the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia, the digestive by-product of animals (and humans) has been used as a nutrient for crops for the following season.  The manure from the pigs raised in Iowa is applied as fertilizer for the corn crop for the following year.  A normal manure application rate is slightly more than 3,000 gallons per acre per year.  In other words, the 22 billion gallons will provide most (not necessarily all) of the fertilizer needs of approximately seven million acres.  According to the most recent USDA planting intentions report, Iowa will raise 13.9 million acres of corn in 2016.  In other words, none of the manure produced by the Iowa hog industry will go to waste.  In fact, there is room for more hog manure.  

Hog manure is a renewable, sustainable, and (dare I say it) "organic" source of crop nutrients.  It is not uncommon for existing farming professionals to build a hog finishing site, rent it out to another hog operation and hire someone else to do the chores.  The main reason they built the hog buildings was because they wanted the manure.

I will only touch on the subject of how commercial fertilizer is produced.  Be thinking about open pit mines, gas tank farms and refineries with 24 hour flood lights and buried pipelines.

POINT -  A past letter to the editor implied that the reason Prestage has developed such a large hog production presence in Iowa was because the regulations have become too strict in North Carolina.

COUNTERPOINT -  That's not why they've come to Iowa.  It simply makes more financial sense to ship a 22 lb pig to Iowa than to ship the 775 lbs. of feed to North Carolina and Mississippi that it would take to get that pig to market weight.  

POINT - The State put the horse in front of the cart by announcing the plant before the City Council had approved it

COUNTERPOINT -  Granted.  That was a public relations blunder.  That's not a reason to turn the pork processing plant down.    

POINT - One opponent has claimed to be able to smell a hog confinement facility from 10 miles away.  

COUNTERPOINT - I doubt it. Anyone who can distinguish the smell of a hog confinement from 10 miles should move to New York City or Paris and work for a fragrance company like Chanel or Dior because they could make millions with their incredibly sensitive sense of smell.

POINT -  At the public comment session of one of the recent Council meetings, one of the opponents referred to the vast majority of farm operators as "fake" farmers. 

COUNTERPOINT - Nope.  I'm not going to dignify a stupid, ignorant statement like that with a reply.

POINT - The opponents to the pork processing plant have made many references to "factory farms" and how the current production methods aren't environmentally sustainable.

COUNTERPOINT - I was raised on a diversified, crop share family farm.  There were 40 cows (six that were still being milked by hand until I was in high school), 200 laying hens, 30 sows, two horses and one dog.  The number of barn cats would change on a weekly basis.  I have fond memories of that bucolic and pastoral way of farming from the middle of the 20th century but, that horse has left the barn (pun intended).  This is the 21st century.   We're not going back to the way it was when I was a kid.

The trend toward consolidation and technological improvements is as old as agriculture itself.  Mason City's decision is not going to change this trend.  Mason City needs to deal with the 21st  century circumstances.

Having said all of that, I'd also like to see production practices change to reduce the nitrates that end up in our streams. I'd also like to see practices that will raise the organic matter of our soils.  The professionals at the land grant universities are working on it.  One idea being researched is bio-filters that will filter the nitrates out of the ground water as it leaves a farm's drainage tile system.  Another proposal is to establish wetland basins at the bottom of watersheds.  These watersheds would only take 2% of the land mass out of production. The wetlands would also filter out the nitrates and reduce the sediment in the streams.

The answer to these issues is not to try to turn back the clock.  We need to stop questioning the current farming professionals.

POINT - One letter to the letter pointed out that Prestage Pork was involved with a nuisance suit in Poweshiek County.  The inference was that Prestage must have been a bad actor.

COUNTERPOINT:   I am familiar with the early stages of this suit.  I don't know how or why things were settled but, I do know that Prestage didn't do anything wrong.  This new finishing site was very well built and well groomed.  This site placement would not have been an issue if it hadn't been placed within full view of the wrong person.  There also probably wouldn't have been a suit if the new site had been built on the opposite side of the crest of the hill.  The concept of "out of sight, out of mind" applies to livestock nuisance suits, too.

It is important to note that the owner of a rural home that was located even closer to the Prestage hog finishing site named in the suit was not a party to the suit.

POINT - Tom Fiegan, who's running for U.S. Senate, made the point at the public comment section of one of the recent City Council meetings that we needed to be aware of the hardships associated with working through the process if this meat processing plant filed for bankruptcy, as have other processing plants with which Mr. Fiegan has been involved, such as Agprocessors in Postville.  The point has also been made privately that the meat packing industry has a record of changing ownership about every 10 years.

COUNTERPOINT - A college textbook on human relations refers to that as "catastrophizing".  If you extend that logic, nobody should attend the Clear Lake Fourth of July fireworks display because there's a good chance there will be traffic accidents because all of those folks wanting to celebrate Independence Day in the same place at the same time.  Life has risks.

I suspect the change in ownership of the meat packing plants has more to do with the consolidation of the meat packing industry than it has to do with the packing plants not being able to turn a profit.

Whether the Federal Trade Commission is doing their job of enforcing anti-monopoly laws in the meat industry is another discussion for another time.

POINT - Several opponents have implied that a couple of the City Councilpersons and Ron Prestage were sore losers when the redevelopment agreement didn't pass.

COUNTERPOINT - Let's all agree that neither side of this issue wanted to lose.  These comments are like the "he said/she said" stuff from our grade school playground recess time.

POINT -  A letter to the editor writer suggested that we should "create our future with hydroponic farming". 

COUNTERPOINT - Any entrepreneur who wants to try hydroponic farming should be encouraged.   Several members of the Mennonite community, as well as others, have active greenhouse operations.  There is a growing segment of the communities surrounding the towns of Colwell, Elma, Riceville, et.al., that are raising truck crops such as melons, berries, pumpkins and other vegetables. 

A young aquaculture industry is also taking root in the State - in some instances in obsolete hog confinement facilities.

We live in the epicenter of the most productive soils on the planet.   There is room for all of these types of growers.   Through trial and error over the generations, the local farming professionals have found that this area is really well suited for raising livestock feed - #2 field corn and soybeans.  That needs to be embraced, too.

POINT -  The school systems won't be able to handle the new students - particularly students who require extra English language instruction.

COUNTERPOINT - When Councilman John Lee was asked for his opinion on how the influx of new students would impact the school system, he said (paraphrasing now) he was a teacher.  He would teach.   Let the teaching professionals do their job. Will it be a challenge?  Yes.

POINT -  The existing medical personnel and facilities are already at capacity.   They aren't capable of handling more people.

COUNTERPOINT - North Iowa, in general, and Mason City, in particular, will have to do what Central Iowa and every other urban center has been doing for the past several years.  Grow.  Build more medical facilities.  Recruit more doctors. Expand the NIACC nursing program.  We've been in a bubble.  Travel a little. You'll discover the majority of the country is dealing with building new hospitals and schools.

POINT - A letter to the editor cited lower school performance in towns with packing plants compared to schools in towns without packing plants.

COUNTERPOINT - That's called mining statistics. That can work both ways.  Let's compare the economies of two counties with large hog feeding concentrations to the rest of rural Iowa.

Iowa's statewide population has grown 12% over the past 25 years, and we raise and market 15 pigs per year for every citizen.

There are 85 hogs raised and sold each year for every man, woman and child in Sioux County.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a livestock unit.  Yet their population has grown 17% over the past 25 years. They have a brand new golf course, a new regional airport under development, two highly regarded, thriving liberal arts colleges, and the most impressive, modern Christian Reformed church buildings you're going to find outside of the metropolitan suburbs.  And yes, they have a significant immigrant population.  

Washington County in Southeast Iowa raises and sells 65 hogs each year for every person in the county.  Their population has grown 13.4% over the past 25 years. No matter where you drive in the county, there will be a hog farrowing, finishing or nursery unit over the crest of the next hill.  And yet, you'll find more McMansions scattered around the rural areas of the county than you're going to find in Cerro Gordo County.

FYI, Cerro Gordo County's population has gone down 7.4% since 1990 and we only raise seven pigs per person per year. 

POINT -  It's been said in private conservations that the new processing plant along the "Avenue of the Saints" is going to be an eye sore for the entrance to our community. It has also been asserted that the new plant is going to generate a lot of odors.

COUNTERPOINT - A few years ago I had the opportunity to appraise several of the Prestage Pork hog finishing sites scattered throughout Iowa.   I've been appraising hog confinement sites for 35 years in nine different states.  The Prestage sites are amongst the best I've seen - in terms of quality of materials, workmanship, engineering and grooming. Also, their Iowa employees with whom I worked were courteous and knowledgeable - all the way from the guys doing the daily hog chores to the folks in charge of their bio-security protocols.   I have every reason to believe the proposed pork processing plant would also be a first class facility with first class managers.

POINT - Prestage Pork has inflated the sound of the wages by quoting the income in terms of 50+ hours per week. 

COUNTERPOINT  -  It might just be my rural, full blooded German heritage coming out, but I don't see the problem with working more than 9-5 if that's what it takes to advance yourself and your family.

POINT -  Barb, the Office Manager here at Benchmark, with whom I have the good fortune of working every day, remembers the way Mason City was 45 years ago when Mason City was on the cover of Time Magazine because of all of our strip clubs.  She likes the cultural center Mason City has become and she's concerned that our community might take a step backwards.

COUNTERPOINT -  There is no counterpoint.  Barb is right.  Mason City is much better now than it was 45 years ago. 

One of the best life decisions my wife and I made was to move to Mason City 41 years ago.  I don't support the proposed Prestage Pork plant because we think Mason City has to change.  We'd be happy if Mason City stayed the way it is.  Our grown-up kids are proud to say they're from Mason City. We all appreciate everything that's been done by many volunteers to make Mason City a cultural center. 

A local MD gave our family some good advice a few years ago.  He told us to get off WebMD and stop self-diagnosing. He said we should let the medical professionals do their job.  That's sound advice for the Prestage Pork situation, too. Get off social media and the search engines and let the economic development professionals and the environmental protection professionals and the architects and civil engineers and the education professionals and the farming professionals do their jobs.    

If the Prestage Pork project isn't meant to happen because the professionals can't make it make sense, so be it.