On a sunny, windy November afternoon, Bruce Gibbens trudges down a
muddy road toward one of his concrete-and-steel hog barns.
Clean, crisp air whips across flat fields and ditches lined with
melting snow. A crane swings a floor slat into place as the last of 10
barns goes up at Dakota Country Swine, Gibbens’ site eight miles east
and one mile north of Cando.
About 100 feet from a barn full of some 2,000 hogs, the stink of
manure sets in. Inside the barn’s closet-sized shower area, where
workers scrub in and out to avoid spreading disease between the barns,
the ammonia-tinged odor pierces the nostrils.
For Gibbens and his family, it’s the odor of opportunity. He owns
the operation with his wife, Lisa, his sister, Judy Gibbens, and her
With 10 barns housing up to 2,090 hogs each, it is easily the largest
hog operation in North Dakota. The next biggest is EnviroPork, a
5,000-sow operation along U.S. Highway 2 near Larimore.
Next spring, construction will begin on a second 20,900-head hog
operation 10 miles southeast of Cando.
Known as Hexagon Farm because of the layout of the barns, it will be
owned by Gibbens’ cousin, Cando Mayor Jim Gibbens, his wife, Linda,
and their six children.
Jim Gibbens said the barns will not only benefit his family, but the
entire Cando area.
“Everybody’s packing up and moving to Fargo, and the ones that
don’t stop there move on to Minneapolis or Denver,” he said.
“We’d like to provide some opportunity for the young people here.”
The farms represent a new era of pork production in North Dakota --
something state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson calls a
“boilerplate plan” for raising hogs.
The plan comes from Manitoba-based Elite Swine Inc. The company wants
to expand hog production in northern North Dakota to feed a 4-year-old
slaughter plant in Brandon, Man., owned by its parent company, Maple
Under its contract with the Gibbenses, Elite Swine rents space in the
barns and supplies the pigs and feed. The Gibbenses must provide the
labor, utilities and manure management.
“It’s kind of like a hotel,” Jim Gibbens said. “It’s their
pigs, they come down to stay here for the feeding period, but we run
Because the setup is new to North Dakota, Elite Swine had the
attorney general’s office review the contract to make sure it didn’t
conflict with a state law that bans corporations from investing in
As the Gibbenses point out, these are still family owned operations.
And confinement barns aren’t new to North Dakota.
What is new is the sheer size of the operations.
To put it into perspective, consider this: The Cloverdale Growers
Alliance, a group of 28 pork producers scattered across North Dakota,
Minnesota and Montana, raises 70,000 hogs a year for the Cloverdale
Meats slaughter plant in Minot. Bruce Gibbens’ 10 barns are emptied
and restocked three times a year, for a total annual production of
It’s a concentration of animals that concerns people like Roger
Copeland, a retired farmer and founder of the activist group Citizens
Against Factory Farming. He lives about 3 miles from the Hexagon Farm
Copeland worries manure runoff will seep into the groundwater supply
or kill fish in the creek that flows by his farm. He’ll have to
install air conditioning because the odor will be too strong to leave
his windows open in the summer.
“Cattle are a whole different story,” said Copeland, who at one
time raised 120 beef cows. “It’s the lagoons and confining of all
this stuff that makes it smell so bad.”
“If they were small farms, I don’t think you’d have the
objections,” he said.
Finding a partner
The Gibbenses are fourth-generation farmers in Towner County.
Their great-grandfather homesteaded near Cando 120 years ago. Bruce
and Jim are diversified grain, bean and potato growers.
Now, they’re also part of Elite Swine’s plans to expand hog
production into northern North Dakota.
Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest commercial pork producer, with
more than 122,000 sows, plans to expand its Brandon packing plant.
The plant currently kills about 45,000 hogs per week but has the
capacity to kill 108,000 per week. Pending a wastewater permit, Maple
Leaf Foods plans to start a second shift in 2005 to kill 90,000 hogs per
week, said spokeswoman Linda Kuhn.“North Dakota is strategically
placed to capture some of that capacity,” said Craig Jarolimek, a
Forest River, N.D., farmer and manager of market development for Elite
Dakota Country Swine and Hexagon Farm each represent about a $4
million investment. The Gibbenses had to put 10 percent to 20 percent
down, Jim Gibbens said, declining to go into further detail.
A main selling point for Elite Swine is the long-term contract that
farmers won’t find in most livestock sectors, Jarolimek said. The
Gibbenses’ contract requires Elite Swine to lease space in their barns
for eight years.
“The reality of life is you will not get financing if you do not
have a stabilization of income,” Jarolimek said.
Elite Swine’s confinement-barn style of raising hogs leaves little
Computers help workers keep track of how much feed the hogs are
eating. Wall-mounted exhaust fans help to control the climate. Manure
falls through the floor slats into 2-foot-deep manure pits directly
below the barns before being flushed to a nearby lagoon.
Elite Swine knows exactly what’s going in and coming out of every
barn. It offers incentive payments to the farmer based on feed
efficiency and low death loss.
“We have a vested interest in making sure the pigs are doing
well,” Jim Gibbens said.
Eventually, the Gibbenses would like to create a “complete loop”
in Towner County by adding a sow barn and nursery barns to supply the
finishing barns. Several sites are being considered for a sow barn, Jim
For now, though, they’ll have to wait until Towner County lifts a
six-month moratorium on new livestock operations. The county is
currently writing a new feedlot ordinance.
“I don’t really think this study period or research period is
bad,” Bruce Gibbens said. “What they want to do is get zoning in
place, and that’s a good idea.”
Elite Swine was involved in similar proposals this fall for hog barns
in Cavalier County near Olga, N.D., and across the U.S.-Canadian border
from Walhalla, N.D.
Both projects faced ardent public opposition, especially from people
living around the tourism-rich Pembina Gorge. Investors backed out of
the one near Langdon in early November. Elite Swine withdrew its permit
application for the proposed site near Walhalla on Nov. 6, although the
company hinted it may resubmit the application in the spring.
Like people in Walhalla, Copeland and other opponents in the Cando
area worry odor and pollution from the hog barns could spoil the local
tourism industry, which thrives on fishing and duck hunting.
“Can you imagine people coming here and setting up their decoys,
and that smell comes rolling in when the wind shifts?” Copeland said.
“They’re not going to be coming back again.”
Copeland said the Gibbenses’ hog barns slipped beneath the public
“Unfortunately, these two (sites) that are in were already in
before we were organized,” he said.
But Bruce Gibbens said a 30-day comment period and a public hearing
in Cando provided ample opportunity for public input.
Besides, the pork industry creates a market for North Dakota grain
and jobs that will help keep the area’s young people around, Gibbens
“We were the original homesteading family in Towner County,” he
said. “It’s not like we’re going to destroy the land, despite what
you may have heard. We want to pass this on to our children.”
The Gibbenses’ operations are a shot in the arm to a dwindling
sector of livestock production in North Dakota.
The number of hog operations in the state has fallen steadily the
past five years, from 850 in 1998 to 700 in 2000 to 600 last year.
At the same time, the state’s hogs and pigs inventory has dropped
22 percent, from 200,000 in 1998 to 154,000 last year.
Charlotte Meier, state executive of the North Dakota Pork Producers
Council, blames the losses in part on a devastating market drop in
1998-99, when hog prices plummeted to 8 cents a pound, their lowest
level since the Depression.
Meier and her husband raised hogs in Hettinger County for 27 years
before quitting a couple of years ago because of his health. They
belonged to a marketing group of 60 producers who pooled their hogs to
negotiate a better price at the packing plant.
“Now there’s probably 10, 15 still in the business,” she said.
Long-term factors have also contributed to the decline.
Pork production continues to shift toward confinement barns, as more
producers prefer to fatten young pigs to slaughter weight rather than
keep sows on the farm to give birth to piglets and raise them from
farrow to finish.
But sources of weaner pigs are hard to come by in North Dakota, Meier
Farmers also may be reluctant to invest in hogs in North Dakota
because the state has only one pork packing plant, Cloverdale Meats in
“Marketing the animals is probably the biggest holdback of
investment, because they have to go such a distance to get to a
market,” Meier said.
Cloverdale Meats already operates at near capacity, processing about
164,000 hogs every year, manager Neal Feist said. The plant gets the
majority of its hogs from Canada and the Cloverdale Growers Alliance.
The state’s anti-corporate farming law has kept a lot of investment
out of the state, Feist said, adding, “I’m not saying it’s good or
In the past, the state’s efforts in regard to swine have been in
strengthening the Cloverdale Growers Alliance, said Johnson, the state
ag commissioner. These are smaller, more dispersed and less
capital-intensive facilities, he said.
“And, as a result, they’ve been much more successful in getting
community support for siting facilities,” he said.
The Cloverdale Growers Alliance is currently in the discussion phases
of trying to buy some of Elite Swine’s finished hogs from the Cando
farms, Dukart said.
Most alliance members are independent, farrow-to-finish operators.
Still, they generally share the same producer mentality as the Gibbenses,
“I don’t think it makes a lot of difference if there’s 2,000
pigs on a site or if there’s 20,000 pigs on a site,” he said. “If
the husbandry and the environmental stewardship are top quality, then
the impact to the land and community and the lifestyles will be very
minimal. But the financial impact is very noticeable to the
According to Jarolimek, the Gibbenses’ operations each will require
five workers at an annual payroll of $145,000. The barns also create
spinoff jobs and business for truck drivers and electricians, among
others, Bruce Gibbens said.
Being free of the devastating hog disease pseudorabies makes North
Dakota one of a handful of states that’s allowed to export hogs to
Canada, said Jarolimek, a former president of the National Pork
The state also has plenty of available land and an ample supply of
wheat, barley, corn, soybeans and other pig feed, he said.
“It’s really the most basic form of turning corn and barley and
soybeans into something of higher value, and we can do it right here in
North Dakota,” said Lance Gaebe, agricultural policy advisor to Gov.
The Gibbenses’ hog operations will each consume about 600,000
bushels of feed per year.
Bruce Gibbens said he’s already contracted to sell 80,000 bushels
of corn to Landmark Feeds Inc. in Landmark, Man., a member of Maple Leaf
Foods that supplies feed to Elite Swine. He said Cando’s position
between Canadian buyers and the primary corn and soybean markets in
southwest Minnesota and Iowa earned him a 15- to 20-cent premium on the
corn, due to reduced shipping costs.
“We have an alternative source now to sell our feed, and we think
that’s good,” he said.
Protection in place
Copeland isn’t convinced it’s necessarily good for Cando.
“That’s the big problem about these places,” he said. “They
don’t care about the people next to them.”
However, the North Dakota Department of Health has adequate laws in
place to protect residents living near large livestock operations,
including those in the Cando area, said Dave Glatt, chief of the
department’s environmental health section.
“I think some people feel there’s been minimal oversight by the
department, when in reality there’s been a lot of oversight by the
department that addresses a lot of the environmental issues,” he said.
As the delegated authority for the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, the department is rewriting its rules for concentrated animal
feeding operations (CAFOs) to comply with new EPA regulations released
Starting Jan. 1, department officials will travel the state seeking
public comment on the rule changes. Glatt hopes to have the new rules in
place by spring.
A major point of emphasis in the new federal rules is that all CAFOs
must implement a nutrient management plan. Hog manure contains high
levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which, while excellent for fertilizing
crops, also can create algae blooms and E.coli danger if it flows into
surface water or groundwater.
The production area must also be designed to contain all of the
operation’s manure -- plus the runoff -- from a 25-year, 24-hour
Dakota Country Swine’s lagoon was built better than that, Jarolimek
said. The lagoon has a capacity of 17.3 million gallons to handle the 12
million gallons of manure that will be produced at the site annually,
plus a 2-foot-high earthen barrier, or “freeboard,” to handle a
100-year rainfall event.When it comes to manure management, North Dakota
is a step ahead of the EPA, said Dennis Fewless, director of the state
Health Department’s division of water quality.
“We think we’re going to meet or exceed all the criteria of the
federal rules,” he said.
For the past three of four years, the department has phased in
requirements that proposers of large livestock operations -- 1,000 or
more cattle, 2,500 or more hogs -- must submit nutrient management
plans, conduct soil tests and apply only as much manure fertilizer as
their crops will use.
The regulations were prompted in part by horror stories from hog
farms in North Carolina and other East Coast states during the 1990s,
Fewless said. Huge lagoons leaked tons of manure through shoddy walls,
and barren fields were saturated with waste.
“They weren’t utilizing it for crops,” he said. “It was just
In Gibbens’ case, the Health Department went through its regular
permitting process, conducting a preliminary site assessment, approving
the building design and soliciting public comment.
Officials were comfortable with how the design addressed manure
storage and application, Glatt said.
Manure from Gibbens’ hogs will be flushed out from 2-foot-deep
concrete pits below the barns to a 14-foot-deep clay lagoon.
State law permits manure to leak through the clay lining at a rate of
1/16th of an inch per day. That’s less stringent than Minnesota, which
allows only 1/56th of an inch, but stricter than Nebraska, which
tolerates ¼-inch of leakage daily.
By requiring the lagoon liner to be 2 feet thick, with the clay
compacted at 6-inch intervals, the Health Department finds leakage rates
are usually less than 1/16th of an inch, Glatt said.
“The design is, we feel, pretty protective of groundwater,” he
Once a year, the manure will be pumped from the lagoon and spread on
surrounding farmland at a rate of 6,000 to 8,000 gallons per acre, or
roughly the equivalent of a ¼-inch of rain, Jarolimek said.
Some opponents of the operations have expressed concern that Jim
Gibbens’ site in Coolin Township is 8,000 feet from the Mauvais Creek,
which eventually flows into Devils Lake. However, Glatt said the impact
on water quality “would seem to be minimal or negligible if they
follow the nutrient management plan.”
“Obviously, as they operate it, we’ll be keeping an eye on
them,” he said.
The Health Department inspects about 50 large livestock operations
annually, Fewless said. That number will increase with the new
regulations, although Fewless said he doesn’t know by how much.
To manage the increased inspections, the department will likely add
staff members or put less emphasis on other duties, Fewless said.
“This is definitely a high priority,” he said.
It also will continue to be a high-emotion issue in Cando.
Copeland said the Gibbenses political positions -- Jim Gibbens is
mayor, Bruce Gibbens is the city attorney and his wife, Lisa, is the
Towner County state’s attorney -- have forced Cando residents to
choose sides over the hog operations.
“It really has divided the community,” he said.
But Jim Gibbens said he looks around Cando and sees a struggling Main
Street and a high school with 325 students, compared to 610 when he
graduated in 1967. He said he sees hogs as an opportunity, but one that
comes with responsibility.
“It would be just plain ludicrous to think we’re going to screw
this deal up,” he said.
“We’re not going to pollute the environment. We’re not going to
pollute the water. It’s just crazy.”