A Minnesota town fights for its life against a factory farm

County officials have shown only support for the dairy, even though it could bring ruin to a lake that serves as the lifeblood of a community.

County officials have shown only support for the dairy, even though it could bring ruin to a lake that serves as the lifeblood of a community. Farm Watch

Economic development in eastern South Dakota can be explained in a word: udders.

The initiative to lure European dairy companies via cheap government loans started with former GOP Governor Mike Rounds. Since 2012, Governor Dennis Daugaard, also a Republican, has continued the practice, but with a twist. He’s been courting California milk producers, enticing them to relocate along the I-29 corridor with subsidies and user-friendly regulations. 

Numbers prove the strategy is working. South Dakota farmers sell almost $400 million worth of milk per year. But the stats also show it’s largely been factory dairies heeding the call. In 2005, the state’s average dairy farm had 250 cows. Today, it’s closer to 1,500 head.

In 2014, residents living near Lake Hendricks, a 1,600-acre body of water located about a three-and-a-half hour drive from the Twin Cities, heard rumors that a huge dairy was being planned. It was said the operation would be built on a hilltop about four miles west of the lake in Brookings County, South Dakota. Minnesota and South Dakota share the sickle-shaped Lake Hendricks that’s five miles long. 

The rumors traveled east over the border to the town of Hendricks, Minnesota (pop. 780). Residents wasted no time finding an answer.   

Michael Crinion proposed building a 4,000-head dairy. The Environmental Protection Agency says that many cows pump out as much excrement as 500,000 people per year. The project would include three manure pits, each holding 2.2 million cubic feet of excrement. Since the holding ponds wouldn’t be able to handle all the waste, Crinion said the dairy would ink agreements with farmers to the west, where manure would be pumped on fields as fertilizer. 

Crinion could not be reached for comment.

From there, the townspeople looked at the topography. From the high ground where the dairy would be, the terrain bends and slopes west. Locals call it “billy goat territory.” The land’s final descent occurs at Oak Lake, a sparsely populated body inside South Dakota.

People knew Oak Lake’s tributaries fed Lake Hendricks. That meant any breach of the manure pits would eventually end up in the lake.  

Jonathan Lengkeek, owner of a restaurant and a bakery in downtown Hendricks, says the lake’s import cannot be overstated. He points to the boaters, swimmers, and fishermen largely responsible for making a vital downtown. 

“All our storefronts are full,” he says. “Most little towns wouldn’t be able to support so many healthy businesses.”

Lengkeek is worried the dairy could wreak havoc on the lake’s water quality. But he’s more fearful of the stink of dung carried by a steady breeze. That could be a bigger quality-of-life violation, he says.

About 100 citizens formed the Lake Hendricks Improvement Association to fight the project. The group has already spent about $100,000 in legal fees. Its latest challenge might very well be the battle that decides the winner. 

Association President Brenda Boeve believes the laws of nature say a factory farm doesn’t belong atop a hill where spillage could turn what’s below into a death zone. In January, a South Dakota judge will hear the case. 

The Association’s case is based on water quality issues. The county’s approval of a conditional use permit that halved the dairy’s setback from a drinking water well was illegal, Boeve argues. Moreover, the county’s aquifer protection regulations prohibit the dairy being built at the proposed site. 

“We must fight,” says Boeve. “We have this beautiful lake, a great community with people who care. This is about doing what’s right.”