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Residents express concerns about planned Baker Dairy

Correction: The Baker Township meeting to discuss a feedlot moratorium is planned for Monday, Aug. 4 not Tuesday as the article originally stated. We apologize for the error. 

MORRIS – About 150 people, including Stevens County residents, members of the Stevens County Board of Commissioners and Stevens County Planning Commission, and staff of Riverview Dairy, attended an informational meeting on Tuesday, July 22 to discuss a proposed dairy in Baker Township.

At the meeting, staff with Riverview addressed some concerns they had heard from the community about the project, which will house 9,200 dairy cows in the southwest quarter of Section 36 in Baker Township, and fielded questions and comments. The dairy is about six miles southeast of Chokio.

Riverview submitted an Environmental Assessment Worksheet to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in May. The EAW was open for comment until June 25.

Brad Fehr, spokesman for Riverview, said the most common response they have heard from neighbors is that Riverview is big enough, why continue to grow?

Riverview currently owns three dairy facilities in Stevens County as well as some in Swift County. Riverview has 85 employees that own 70 percent of the company. The other 30 percent is owned by neighbors and community members.

“At the end of the day, that is why we want to grow,” said Fehr. “I so feel some obligation to give them guys the opportunity that I received.”

Fehr also argued that small, family farms are on the decline because it takes fewer people to maintain a farm.

“I don’t know how we bring more people back to agriculture if we don’t have animal agriculture,” he said.

A new dairy in the community will also provide opportunities for other farmers in the area to provide services like chopping, manure pumping, trucking and hay cutting. The dairy provides another market for local crops and Riverview sells manure as fertilizer for local farmers for 30 to 40 percent cheaper than other fertilizers, Fehr said.

Other questions included Riverview’s affiliation with the Apostolic Christian Church in Stevens County, the company’s use of Hispanic labor, and environmental impacts and odors.

Fehr estimated there are 10 to 12 denominations represented at Riverview and that a church has never donated land or loaned money to the company.

Mitch Fehr, a Riverview staff member in livestock production, noted that Riverview recruits employees from the region as well as from Mexico.

Most Hispanic employees are in the community for one to three years on a TN visa. The TN visa requires a professional degree, usually a veterinarian or engineering degree. When the visa is set to expire, employees have the option to return to Mexico or renew their visa and continue on the path to citizenship, said Fehr.

“We’re just starting to get our first few guys with their residency here, and hopefully in another two years we’ll have the first ones with their citizenship,” said Fehr.

One of the challenges for the proposed dairy is getting quality water, explained Jim Nieland, with Riverview’s construction team. The aquifer in Baker Township does not have good quality water, so they started to look elsewhere.

The top choice, for now, is to pump water from an aquifer near West River Dairy in Section 17 of Horton Township and run it in a pipe along County Road 8.

The aquifer is replenished by the Pomme de Terre river and handles the capacity that the dairy needs, said Gary Fehr.

Damon Knobloch explained that Baker Dairy will use biofilters to help eliminate odors. Baker Dairy will also not have a digester and will not irrigate collected rainwater off for the feed pad, which should reduce odors.

After the half-hour presentation, the meeting was opened up for questions and comments moderated by County Attorney Aaron Jordan for another hour.

Several commenters expressed concern that building a dairy and acquiring land to support the dairy would take away opportunities for small farmers.

“There’s no future for our kids out here. … If land comes up, you’re going to buy it,” said Keith Anderson, who lives near the proposed dairy.

“The factory farm, which you operate right now, is stealing the future of our youth,” added his wife, Deb. “Our kids have no future here. There’s nobody that’s going to move out to this community expecting to make a living.”

Brad Fehr argued there are opportunities created by bringing livestock in the county – “I’ve got 30 guys that I work with and they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for animal agriculture.”

Kathy DeBuhr, who lives about 1.5 miles southeast of the proposed dairy, said she and her husband are concerned about odors from the dairy because 40 percent of the wind in the area comes from the north and northwest.

“How many days each year am I going to sit in my yard and smell your cattle?” DeBuhr asked. “How much do I have to withstand?”

“We’ve got all the technology we can put on this facility,” responded Gary Fehr. “We feel we’ve done everything we possibly can in animal agriculture to mitigate the odor. Will there be a dairy smell? There will be a dairy smell.”

Three farmers from Swift County, Dick Walsh, Randy Pothen and Mike Yost, spoke about their positive relationship with East Dublin Dairy near Murdock.

Walsh said that at a question and answer session in Murdock before the dairy was built, residents raised many of the same concerns.

“It’s not a paid commercial, but these guys here have done everything they say they’re going to do. If there’s a problem, they take care of it. The Hispanics are very nice people, they work hard, and [their children] joined the school,” said Walsh.

If Riverview’s permit for Baker Dairy is approved by the MPCA, they will also need to get a conditional use permit from the Stevens County Planning Commission. The Planning Commission previously approved permits for West River Dairy and the District 45 Dairy in the county, said Environmental Services Director Bill Kleindl.

The July 31 edition of the Chokio Review reported that the Baker Township board will try to place a moratorium on construction of animal feedlots in the township. There will be a public hearing on the issue on Monday, Aug. 4 at 5:30 p.m. at Hooter’s Lumber on Highway 28 west of Chokio.

As reported in the Chokio Review, “An interim ordinance (more commonly known as a moratorium) will help in adopting and amending the township’s land use ordinances by allowing it to study the Baker Dairy issue without the pressure of time generated by the pending permit.”