Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias The farmer and the cowman should be friends,

Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.

One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,

But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.

Territory folks should stick together,

Territory folks should all be pals.

Cowboys dance with farmers' daughters,

Farmers dance with the ranchers' gals.

From the musical Oklahoma!,

music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein

The lyrics of The Farmer and the Cowman instantly came to mind simply by perusing South Dakota news over the past week.

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the song to reflect the friction felt between ranchers, who preferred the wide open range for their cattle herds, and farmers, who were breaking sod, planting crops, and putting up barbed-wire fences.

If this wondrous songwriting duo could visit South Dakota today, I wonder if they might consider adapting the song just for us, and change its title to The Farmer and the Townman.

Indeed, in a state like South Dakota, farmers and city dwellers (or to be more accurate, townsfolk) need each other.

There's just one problem. Many times, it seems, these two distinct segments of the state's population seem to forget that.

No one will argue that South Dakota has traditionally relied on agriculture as its major industry.

Look at agriculture with a historical perspective, however, and one can't help but be disturbed.

Statistics show that the number of farm families in the state is dwindling. In 1971, South Dakota was home to 46,500 farms, according to the South Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service.

Today, there are approximately 32,500 farms in the state.

In 1971, the average size of a South Dakota farm was 978 acres. Today, it's 1,354 acres.

In western South Dakota, it's not unusual to find counties with farms and ranges that average several thousands of acres in size.

According to the 1997 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the average size of a Clay County farm was 570 acres.

Ironically, as farm sizes have grown in South Dakota, the number of farmers have declined.

Is there any way to stop this trend of farm growth because of farmer attrition?

A national dairy entrepreneur believes he can help. Last Friday, Mark Davis, president of Davisco Foods International of Le Sueur, MN announced that his firm and Land O' Lakes plan to construct a $50 million cheese plant at Lake Norden.

There's just one catch. For the cheese plant to be successful, it will need milk � lots of it. There currently are about 100,000 dairy cows in the state, said Larry Gabriel, secretary of the South Dakota Agriculture Department in Pierre. In 1930 South Dakota had 600,000 dairy cows. That had fallen to 200,000 by 1960 and has continued to decline.

South Dakota will need 60,000 additional dairy cows for the cheese plant idea to become a reality.

So, in a period when farmers are being urged to retire cropland for conservation, to limit their grain production to prevent oversupply and declining prices, they are being urged to expand their operations.

There's some risk involved, of course, but if the cheese plant is successful, South Dakota's ag economy would receive a much-needed boost. The plant will bring 60 immediate jobs in the new factory, up to 750 jobs in spinoff services and businesses and expanded markets for hay and grain that will dramatically boost commodity prices.

That could reshape the agricultural community in the region and lead to similar developments that could spur the rural economy across the state.

Ironically, just days after the Lake Norden announcement, the Yankton County Commission made a decision that made no one happy.

It gave final approval to certain setbacks in the county's temporary zoning ordinance.

Now the farmer and the townman should be friends, right? In Yankton County, however, townsfolk, namely members of a group called Families Respecting Everyone's Environment (FREE), claim the county commission went against the will of the people who successfully halted the establishment of a 20,000-head cattle feeding operation near Utica with a public vote.

At the same time, a number of livestock producers and members of the Yankton County Planning Commission said the setback limits threaten the future of agriculture in Yankton County.

Earlier this year, we stated our opposition to the rather poor example set by Yankton County voters toward agriculture. Should any sort of similar attempt at zoning restrictions be implemented in Clay County, count us among those who believe that there is still room in rural areas like South Dakota for larger farms.

We feel confident, for example, that if a facility like the Lake Norden cheese plant were to locate in southeast South Dakota, our county's farmers would jump at the chance to be part of the economic revival it would bring.

We just hope our townfolk realize that agriculture development will help them, too.

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