Panels highlight Farmers Union convention


HURON — The 108th annual South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) annual convention wrapped up Friday afternoon at the Huron Event Center with the second of two panels on important agriculture issues during the two-day event.

Thursday, a panel of Brian Jorde of Domina Law Group, Spink County commissioner Suzanne Smith, Brown County commissioner Drew Dennert, and Sioux Falls city councilor Curt Soehl addressed concerns with landowner’s rights.

The panel Friday examined market concentration in meat packing as well as food labeling. That panel was moderated by state legislator, cattle producer and SDFU board member Oren Lesmeister. On the panel were Scott Blubaugh, President of American Farmers & Ranchers, Scott Kolousek, SDFU board member from Wessington Springs, and Michael Kades, Deputy Assistant Attorney General with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).

In Thursday’s panel, panelists were united in encouraging counties to protect their residents, especially in the case of pipelines that could utilize eminent domain to acquire needed land for construction of pipelines.

“Whether the pipeline is going through your county or not, you should have an ordinance,” Smith stated.

She also emphasized that protecting farmer land is not simply a fight against pipelines, but whatever may come next as well that could threaten land owner rights.

The recent application of two companies to potentially build pipelines through the state to carry liquid carbon led to requests from farmers to the state level to put in place protections for land owners.

However, that was not addressed by the state legislature in the 2023 session.

SDFU President Doug Sombke noted that utilizing eminent domain for private gain is something that the organization has been against for decades. Sombke also stated that because state law does not protect private property rights, county governments are left to step up to protect landowner rights.

Jorde discussed the legal challenge that Domina was part of to challenge the interpretation of survey law that was utilized by pipeline companies to enter farms and farmland with or without landowner permission.

He estimates that a hearing on that pending litigation will come next spring or summer.

He also noted that pipeline companies filled more than 100 lawsuits against private landowners who declined to sign documents allowing the pipeline through their property.

“Right now, we’ve been able to dismiss most of those lawsuits, but some are still pending,” Jorde recounted, noting that South Dakota law does allow for a company to begin utilizing eminent domain before receiving approval from the PUC on a project. Preventing such action until approval from the state is one of multiple landowner rights bills that will be presented to the legislature during the 2024 session.

Smith noted that lawsuits against individuals and against county governments that set ordinances were filed before either pipeline had received clearance from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Currently, five counties have put ordinances in place — Brown, McPherson, Moody, Minnehaha and Spink.

Both companies, Navigator and Summit Carbon Solutions, did have their petitions to the PUC denied.

Navigator chose to use the denial as a reason to no longer make plans to cross the state. Summit Carbon Solutions, however, is attempting to work with counties and individuals that have declined to sign contracts before approaching the PUC with another application to potentially cross the state.

Feedback from the audience was significantly slanted toward property owner rights, with the issue of ethanol being “weaponized” in Summit messaging since the PUC denial one that really upset members that spoke.

Dennert expressed that the future of the ethanol industry is in no way tied to carbon pipelines.

“If the Summit Carbon pipeline goes away, that doesn’t mean that ethanol goes away,” Dennert remarked. “The ethanol industry has a host of opportunities to use advancing technology to capture carbon and dispose of it.”

One response from the audience noted that the financial report from the ethanol plant he was invested in showed “record profits” in 2022 when corn prices were “nearly twice” the prices farmers received in 2023 for their crop.

Returning to the concern of putting ordinances in place in counties to protect land owners, Smith struck back against those who referred to the actions of her county to enact an ordinance as “brave.”

“There’s nothing brave about doing the right thing,” Smith concluded.

Friday's panel was focused on market concentration in meat packing and food labeling. On the panel, from left, were Scott Blubaugh, President of American Farmers & Ranchers, Scott Kolousek, SDFU board member from Wessington Springs, and Michael Kades, Deputy Assistant Attorney General with the United States Department of Justice. State legislator and SDFU board member Oren Lesmeister, right, moderated the panel.

In Friday’s panel, Lesmeister opened the panel by describing a fly-in event that SDFU hosted a few years back that brought in the DOJ to discuss meat packing issues and labeling issues. Lesmeister connected that event to the panel on Friday due to Kades being present at both. Meeting with DOJ has become an annual thing.

While Kades expressed that he could not expand on any pending litigation, he did discuss that knowing what the issues are from farmers helps significantly, including calls and reports when illegal practices are taking place in agriculture.

Blubaugh addressed truth in labeling based on a question about “certified Angus” labels placed on meat being produced by cross-bred cattle. He stated that this is similar to concerns raised about the “product of the U.S.A.” labels due to foreign beef being shipped to the Unites States and then processed within the country and able to carry that designation.

He noted that consumers struggle to trust the meat their purchasing and that retailers utilize the labels in order to garner a higher price for the products.

Wessington Springs cattle producer Kolousek noted that U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) has been pushing multiple bills in truth in labeling, but the pace in Washington, D.C. has held things up to this point.

“There’s a geniune feeling in Washington that things need to change,” Kolousek stated. “My frustration is just how slow it is for the rest of Congress to get on board and move this forward.”

Blubaugh also discussed consumer right to repair and how that affects farmers. He noted that farmers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single piece of equipment - and more - but if anything needs to be fixed on that equipment, doing the work on your own invalidates the warranty.

Members of the audience echoed those remarks, stating that the distance to get a piece of equipment to town to be fixed is often cumbersome, or a farmer has to pay extremely high fees for the work to be done in the field - if the work can even be scheduled, as busy times of the year like harvest and planting season can mean the area dealership simply doesn’t have available technicians to fix something that could be handled at home.

Progress on right to repair has come through lawsuits from the DOJ and other federal agencies, Kades noted.

The panelists each stressed the importance for farmers to participate in events like the SDFU-sponsored fly-in to talk with not just the politicians that represent them, but also the agencies of the federal government that are supposed to protect farmers.

“Many in this room have attended a fly-in,” Kolousek said. “We need to get the next generation and those who have never attended to go on the next one. We need to make our voice heard.”

Reporting by Lura Roti of South Dakota Farmers Union contributed to this article.

The top award at the Farmers Union convention, the Ag Ambassador Award, was presented to Jim Burg of Wessington Springs.