Lalley: Humanizing campaign shifted tone in the Sioux Falls slaughterhouse debate
Opponents of the ban focused attention on involvement of POET's leader, Jeff Broin. Shift in message personalized the outcome of the vote.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Politics is easy.
Business is hard.
That stark reality emerged in the hours after the polls closed on Tuesday, Nov. 8, when it became clear that Sioux Falls voters were unwilling to limit animal processing in the city.
The campaign at times seemed like we were weighing an existential threat to the very fiber of the community with dystopian allusions of environmental or economic disaster, depending on your perspective.
That’s just politics.
Yes, it was a big deal, and a complicated discussion of water, labor and odor.
Still, it’s a simple choice for voters, yes or no and move on.
The actual business discussion about what is truly viable — and when — is exponentially more complex.
Added to that is the potential fallout for companies and organizations that hooked their brand to one side or the other. It was a weird element of the campaign early on that, for the most part, the sides were rosters of brands rather than people.
The tone was set when the group that became Smart Growth Sioux Falls sent a letter to the mayor and City Council asking for a pause in the permitting process for Wholestone Farms’ pork plant.
The signatories were primarily companies with a few big names from the community. The individuals quickly faded into the background however, and the titans in the debate were not human, they were logos and acronyms.
Wholestone, POET, The Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, S.D. Soybean Association, S.D. Pork, JDS Industries, and on and on.
When the ballot question percolated into public consciousness last summer, it felt impersonal and easy for voters.
Given the simple choice of whether to have more slaughterhouses, wouldn’t voters just say no? Or in the case of the ballot question, yes?
Up until a few weeks ago, that appeared to be the case.
When Sioux Falls Open for Business formed in opposition to the measure, those involved admitted there was a significant perception to overcome.
It got personal.
Wholestone became not just a collection of architect’s drawings, but rather a coalition of farmers. People like Brad Greenway who runs a grain and livestock operation near Mount Vernon and is a member of the cooperative.
Christine Erickson, the former city councilor who was the spokesperson for Open for Business. Jeff Griffin, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. Jerry Schmitz, the executive director of the Soybean Association.
And, of course Jeff Broin, the founder and CEO of POET, which dumped more than a $1 million into the effort to stop Wholestone.
In the early days, the ag groups and the spokespeople and even the lawyers, would barely acknowledge the idea of Jeff Broin.
Gradually that reticence shifted.
Many farmers, jilted by their comrade in the value-added agriculture crusade, asked why they should sell corn to POET, or buy their distillers grain for feed. The campaign messaging shifted to references to “one person” or Broin’s estate a mile from the Wholestone site.
It was a step that Open for Business had to take.
Business, whether that’s a family farm, a biofuel refiner or a big pork processor, is hard.
It’s a gamble every day. It’s even harder when the people you are supposed to be in business with, at least in the big picture, are standing in your way.
POET never personalized it. Or perhaps more accurately, didn’t humanize it.
Jeff Broin didn’t give any interviews and never acknowledged that his home played a role in his company’s involvement. The spokespeople for POET communicated only through email.
It’s unclear whether the farmers’ threats of cutting ties to POET will carry through. The company buys something like two-thirds of the corn grown in the region.
The economic reality of the situation may be there are few other choices and, while still miffed, it might make more sense to put that slight aside and move on.
After all, business is hard enough.