Straight talk on animal agriculture this session

Created: 1/18/23 (Wed) | Topic: Issues

Paul Thomas is a legislator and animal agriculture supporterPhoto of Paul Thomas by Bailey Hawbaker.

The following interview is an excerpt from the Straight Talk podcast. It has been edited for clarity. To listen to the entire podcast, scroll to the bottom of this page.

Host Emmery Mehlhoff: Today I have Representative Paul Thomas with me from Velva, North Dakota. Can you tell us about yourself and your district? And I believe you have the responsibility as the new Agriculture Committee Chair.

Rep. Paul Thomas: I was elected to the House of Representatives last session, so this is my second session serving in the North Dakota House of Representatives. Last session, I also served on the House Ag Committee and the Industry, Business and Labor Committee, serving on those two committees again this session. But as you mentioned, I did get chosen to be the House Ag Committee chair. I'm looking forward to that leadership role and all that that brings with it.

Emmery: We're in the early stages of the session and we’re just getting our boots on the ground, so to speak. What is the outlook for the 2023 session and how is it going to affect our day-to-day operations on our farms and ranches?

Rep. Thomas: One of the priorities I'm putting forward is animal agriculture. We've seen a steady decrease in animal agriculture's share of the economy in North Dakota and that's really disappointing to me. We see statewide there is a lack of value-added animal ag and I think there are a number of reasons to that and we're hoping to address them this session.

We'll be looking at zoning assurances. Some animal feeding operations have attempted to locate in the state, and they've had a very difficult time working with some county and zoning issues that have been beyond what state law allows. That environment certainly isn't conducive for other people looking to become more involved in animal agriculture when they do not have the assurance that the laws in place in this state are going to be the laws that they operate under.

Another area we see hesitancy for animal agriculture [expansion] is concern about infrastructure costs, whether it's rebuilding a township road or improving upon a county road, so that business and commerce can occur there. We have a couple of provisions we're going to take a hard look at and I'm going to push to help in the counties and townships in those cases. So, any of the potential property tax burden that would occur, the state's saying, "Hey, we realize that the value of animal agriculture is not just beneficial to the individual doing it or the local community that it’s located in, but just as important to the state of North Dakota, and we're willing to participate in helping those industries develop here."

The third area I want to focus on this session is the capital investment required for these industries. We see the cost of a swine farrowing genetics barn upwards of $20 million. We've heard numbers much greater for modern dairy barns and poultry barns in excess of millions of dollars. The large capital expenditures required to make those operations economically viable, requires outside capital and we need – as a state – to allow that capital to be invested in our animal agriculture industries. That to me is really what it's about. It's about getting the next generation of agriculture involved not only through grain farming, but through animal agriculture. I think one of the top priorities this session for the next generation of agriculture should be making access to capital available to pursue their animal agricultural interests.

Those are the three key areas I see that we as a state can play an important role in advancing animal agriculture.

Emmery: As the number of young people coming back to the farm decreases, we talk about all sorts of different ways we can incentivize or encourage them to return. But when you're looking at large levels of capital required now and it's not so much like you can just come back with a horse and plow. Although there’s something to be said for that.

Rep. Thomas: I think to your horse and plow analogy, there's room for all different sizes and scopes of animal agriculture in this state. I think we're going to see the continued opportunity for smaller, locally grown beef or pork or whatever the case is, sold to the local market or sold to the neighbors or possibly even to the school systems. That is slowly starting to happen. We're seeing those entrepreneurs create that value added operation to their farms. But overall we know that the populations are not within North Dakota, they're outside North Dakota. And the economies of scale required for successful animal production primarily are large operating facilities that acquire employees and require again, as we talked, a significant amount of capital.

The heart of this whole issue is, by improving upon our animal ag numbers we also make our rural communities more successful and populous. Where farmers are going to continue to improve efficiency, they're most likely going to continue to grow in size. And as that happens we're going to see less and less people in these rural areas. In my opinion, the best way to reverse that is to complement it with animal agriculture. You don't need to add significant amounts of land, rather just utilize some of those landscapes that aren't as productive. There are areas on all of our farms where some sort of animal agriculture facility could add significant value, could add jobs, add young people who could come back home and have children and be involved in their local communities.

And then the spur off business you create from that, from the local feed mill to the transportation opportunities, is just tremendous. I think we are missing the boat so bad as a state. And that now with the potential of three new soybean crush plants being built and that soymeal located here, we have the choice to either develop animal agriculture or we can load that soymeal on train cars and semis and ship it out of this state and let some other community and state get those benefits.

Emmery: We talk about the potential economic development benefit to the communities, but we also need to think about how we can improve the quality of life in our rural communities and how we can attract people to our rural areas. We're not just talking about capital or economic development for the state, but also growth and improving the quality of our local communities.

Rep. Thomas: Yeah, absolutely.

Emmery: Thank you, Representative Thomas, for giving some of the priorities and things that will be addressed by your committee. And I'm sure we'll be talking again here as the session proceeds and visiting about how it's going.

Rep. Thomas: Absolutely. Thank you, Emmery.

Contact emails:

Representative Paul Thomas:

Host Emmery Mehlhoff:

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