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Wednesday, July 18, 2007 10:52 am

Tortilla flap

To keep their community rural, residents wage a fight against farmers and a proposed corn mill

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Untitled Document A hawk screeching overhead and an occasional breeze rustling tall stalks of corn are about the only sounds Jeff and Angie Wrench hear on their farm in Lodge, a small bedroom community in the heart of Piatt County. For almost two decades the Wrenches have hosted family reunions at the farm, which is a frequent destination for city-dwelling relatives seeking a reprieve from urban life. “There are a lot of good neighbors here,” Jeff Wrench says. He grew up here, and, he says, “I plan on dying here.”
“We believe in the small-town atmosphere,” says Angie, a native of Indiana. “People move out here to escape industry.”
But industry appears to have finally caught up with Lodge. Less than a mile from the Wrenches’ house is the proposed location of a 45,000-square-foot white-corn mill for the processing of masa, the main ingredient of tortillas, tamales, and pupusas. The Wrenches and many of their neighbors believe that the planned development, which requires a special-use permit from the county board, will undermine 40 years of residential growth in Lodge and make it easier for similar industrial projects to be constructed in the future. Supporters, meanwhile, say that the new mill will provide badly needed property-tax revenue for the county, as well as jobs and a market for locally produced corn. Racism, they charge, is the real reason people in Lodge oppose the mill — an irrational fear that the area will be overrun by Mexican immigrants. Lodge’s tortilla flap is emblematic of a growing rural brand of not-in-our-back-yard-ism in which residents of new bedroom communities in the sticks find themselves confronting major agribusiness projects ranging from ethanol refineries to concentrated animal-feeding operations. These disputes, pitting neighbor against neighbor, can turn downright nasty as people fight to protect their livelihoods and property. The proposed corn mill would be built on farmland owned by Phil and Tenna Knox. “Totally unreasonable” is how Tenna Knox describes opponents of the plan.  “These are city people who moved out to the country. You move to the country, it’s farming. There’s equipment, there’s trucks, there’s dust, there’s a lot going on — and if you can’t deal with that then you need to live in town.”

Lodge has no schools, supermarkets, or filling stations; nor does the village, which includes 23 houses, have a mayor or local governing body.
As a matter of fact, between Lodge and Monticello, the county seat, there is very little commercial development, so one would be hard pressed to make the argument that the area wouldn’t benefit from a little extra property-tax revenue.
Molinero Inc. — a subsidiary of a Chicago-based family-owned company, El Milagro Inc. — hopes to build on a 30-acre section of land on the south side of Illinois Route 10, six acres of which would be used for a lagoon. The company’s chief supplier, Clarkson Grain Inc., headquartered in Cerro Gordo, in southern Piatt County, will occupy another 10-acre chunk of the land and is coordinating local efforts to build the plant on Molinero’s behalf. In addition to injecting much-needed cash into the county’s coffers, the Molinero mill would provide 45 jobs — not much incentive here, where unemployment is the lowest among surrounding counties, at 3.2 percent.
“I’ve got a good job with the U of I [University of Illinois], and I’m not giving it up to work in a tortilla factory,” says one female resident, who purchased a home two weeks before hearing about the masa plant. But Piatt County is advantageous for several reasons — chief among them its proximity to white-corn farmers, says Clarkson Grain’s president and founder, Lynn Clarkson. As things stand, Clarkson says, Piatt County is like a foreign country that exports all of its raw materials, and building the plant would provide local farmers with a premium market. Clarkson envisions parklike landscaping for the plant, which will be no taller than 28 feet. It is to be designed by Springfield-based consulting firm Massey & Massey. Residents first received word about the plan on May 1 by way of a letter inviting neighbors whose land abuts the proposed site to a May 17 meeting with Clarkson Grain officials. One week before that meeting, a small group of concerned citizens gathered to discuss their concerns, including noise, pollution, and the effect on future zoning disputes. Within a few days they had posted a Web site and started circulating a petition, which has gotten more than 500 signatures. It’s not that they don’t welcome growth, neighbors say; it’s the thought of an industrial park so close to homes. So far, they say, the plant’s operators haven’t supplied local citizens with adequate information about the activities that will take place there. John Stolfa, a native Chicagoan who’s lived in Lodge for 15 years, says that the county’s comprehensive plan has encouraged residential development in the area — and the corn mill is a step backwards. “Nobody wants to move, but at least with eminent domain somebody buys your property when they destroy its value,” Stolfa says.
In the production of masa, corn is subjected to a process known as nixtamalization — soaked in an alkaline solution of water and lime, then cooked and steeped — after which the resulting substance, known as nixtamal, is ground into wet or dry masa. Neighbors don’t buy the argument that they won’t be able to smell the process, especially once microorganisms form and the summer sun starts heating the pool. In urban areas, the wastewater is typically treated before being emptied into the sewer. “All that wastewater sitting out there can’t smell good, even if they aerate it,” says Angie Wrench. At the Lodge facility the water will be aerated and stored in a lagoon, 10 inches of which the Knoxes will spray on their remaining farmland each year. Because the property is located on a floodplain, opponents also anticipate runoff into surrounding creeks and the Sangamon River, which could pose a danger to fish. For evidence to back up their concerns, opponents researched a larger plant located in Evansville, Ind., owned by an El Milagro competitor, Azteca Foods Inc. In 2005, that facility sustained three explosions, resulting in $13,950 in fines, according to news reports. In Lodge, safety will be a top priority, Clarkson says. “I’m a little reluctant to accept responsibility for what went on at other plants,” he says. He adds, “We didn’t go design this thing at a coffee shop.”
Stolfa and other concerned residents worry that the factory will drive down the value of their homes, and they wonder why Clarkson Grain chose not to put the plant on its own property in Cerro Gordo or in a less densely populated area. Clarkson says that he tried but, on learning that running the necessary gas lines would cost an additional $2 million, sought another location that was large enough, was situated close to an interstate, and had ready access to natural gas and water. “A lot of people seem to think it’s pretty easy to find someplace that’s got everything,” Clarkson says, “but much of Piatt County lacks all of that.”

Clarkson Grain approached the Knoxes with details of the plant early this spring, and, after hiring engineers to check things out, they signed on about six weeks later, Tenna Knox says.
“We live less than a mile from this location, so if it was going to smell and be noisy we would not have wanted it,” she says. The Knoxes who grow yellow corn and soybeans, own 520 acres north and south of Route 10, which they will continue to farm. This season they rented their land to the prospective purchaser, Molinero, which incorporated in December, according to records held by the secretary of state’s office. “There’s nothing harmful to the environment; it’s going to be bring tax revenue; it’s going to bring jobs; and it’s going to bring a market for the farmers’ grain,” Tenna says, adding that the Piatt County Farm Bureau supports the project. In its endorsement letter, written in rumor-versus-fact format, the Farm Bureau says, “the plant will use about 3 million bushels of food grade white corn and would provide Piatt County farmers with a significant new market for their corn.”
The Farm Bureau also cites a study, completed by Illinois State Water Survey hydrogeologist George Roadcap, indicating that the development will not have a significant impact on domestic wells. The letter goes to say that the facility shouldn’t be noisy, won’t increase truck traffic, and will not employ illegal immigrants. The question of immigrants, Tenna Knox says, may be the real reason for some of the opposition.
“If you want to know what these people’s problem is, it’s purely prejudice and racism. You better believe it,” Knox says. “And it’s prejudice against Mexicans: They do not want this facility because ‘Oh my God, they’re going to make masa, and you make tortillas with that, and they’re going to bring busloads of Mexicans in to work. Then everything is just going to go to hell’ — that’s exactly what is being said. That’s what these people are telling people to scare them into opposing this facility.”
As evidence of the tone of the discussion, Knox provides a reporter with an e-mail from a local resident. It reads: “Clarkson Grain is really a sort of ‘straw buyer’ for the site, which will really be owned and operated by a company with the Hispanic name of ‘Molinero.’ It’s kind of dissappointing that it wasn’t orignally revealed ‘up front’ rather than later in the game. I have a hard time believing that a company named ‘Molinero’ will want to hire ‘locals’ rather than illegals. Wonder where they will live while working at ‘Molinero’ (which is Spanish for ‘mill’).”
Members of the concerned-citizens group, however, say that their organization has never played the race card. Instead, they say, they are disturbed by the possibility that workers will be hired from employment agencies in Decatur and Champaign, making it unlikely that factory workers will live or spend their paychecks in Piatt County. Both Clarkson Grain and opponents say that Molinero Inc. has indicated that it won’t build where the mill isn’t wanted. The Piatt County Zoning Board did table a petition submitted by the Knoxes for a special-use permit for their land, and on July 6 the mill operators applied for a second permit, this one for a site north of Lodge. Both locations will be voted on at a special zoning meeting at the end of July; the Piatt County Board could make a final decision next month. The Knoxes say that they’ll accept whatever decision the zoning board renders, although at the current price for an acre of premium Piatt County farmland they stand to lose close to $250,000.
“If we do not get this facility, that’s fine,” says Tenna Knox. “It’s our land; it’s still zoned agricultural. We have been in touch with some people, and we are going to put a hog farm in there.”
Under the current zoning rules, the Knoxes can keep as many as 40 free-range animals — for which, Knox says, buyers pay top dollar over hogs raised in confinement — without a special-use permit. The Wrenches and other opponents say that the Knoxes are bluffing, but Tenna Knox says that she’s serious:  “Anybody who really knows me knows I always follow through on my word. There will be a hog farm, and they’ll find out it’s not an empty threat, and there’s not a darn thing they can do.”

To say that bad blood exists between the neighbors of Lodge would be an understatement.
Neighbors report that more than a dozen complaints of harassment and intimidation have been filed with the sheriff’s office. One opponent of the project says that the “No Corn Mill” sign in his yard now has a bullet hole in it from a weapon of indeterminable caliber — but that “it definitely wasn’t a BB gun.”
The friction is just a sign of growing pains for the rural community. Change is inevitable, says Lynn Clarkson, because agriculture simply cannot afford to become a museum piece. “We run into a significant number of people who live in our county but do not make a living in our county. It’s amusing to farmers to see people in subdivisions putting signs up that say ‘Keep us rural.’ ”
“How can we mesh these two?” he asks. “You don’t want to invest in a plant or run an economic operation where you’re really not wanted.”
Such problems are likely to persist as rural land gets developed. “People who do move into the country should have an awareness, the same as people who move near an airport need to understand that there will be airplanes taking off and landing,” says Douglas Wilson, Illinois director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. “This is a farmer’s livelihood, and as such there are certain things they need to do to produce a crop.”
Bridget Holcomb, agricultural-program coordinator for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a not-for-profit group that advocates for small producers and encourages sustainable-agriculture practices, says that rural areas are being shaped by two trends: urban sprawl and farmers’ need to add value to their crops. She doesn’t believe that those interests are mutually exclusive, however. “People usually just have questions they want answered,” Holcomb says. “It just requires a conversation, and usually, after the conversation is had, residents are much happier about these companies moving into their area.”
Piatt County board member Sharon Lee Martin, who has lived in the county for three decades, wants to see more details about both sites before deciding which location would be best for the county. One problem, she says, is that everyone has a different way of defining growth. “When you say that word, the picture that pops into everyone’s head is probably different,” Martin says. She just hopes for a positive resolution, something else she says is subject to interpretation.
“I’ve been a little dismayed that’s it’s blown into such a large issue,” Martin says, “but whether they’re opposed or not opposed we have many, many fine people in our county.”

Contact R.L. Nave rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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