Dakota Rural Action
In the black hills of South Dakota, Dakota Rural Action (DRA) has the reputation for being the most aggressive and politically driven of regional activist groups. Backed by loads of out-of-state foundation money and a claim to prairie populism, DRA has earned that title with a variety of anti-consumer campaigns designed to inflate food prices and put leftist politics squarely on your plate.
Dakota Rural Action’s claim to fame was the 1998 passage of South Dakota’s “Amendment E,” a change to the state’s Constitution that “bans corporate farming” — except, of course for the “corporate” farms that the activist culture likes. Through a relentless campaign of disinformation, DRA was able to convince South Dakotans to back their proposed constitutional amendment and strike a blow against “big, out-of-state corporations.”
While the new law affects many types of meat production, hog farms were the measure’s real focus. When the amendment was presented to the voters, the official information pamphlet presented the pro-Amendment E argument in these words: “Amendment E is needed to prevent corporations from using interlocking boards and other anti-competitive ties with the meatpacking industry from limiting and then ending market access for independent livestock producers.” This language was written by a board member of DRA.
What supporters of Amendment E didn’t divulge to South Dakota voters is that DRA is itself a corporation, and that it is part of a collective of groups called the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). WORC’s board of directors is the very epitome of an interlocking structure, allowing only WORC subsidiary groups to have a say in its message development and activism.
In 1998, when Dakota Rural Action was telling South Dakota voters of the evils of interlocking boards, DRA director Shirley Effling was also on the WORC board. Today, both she and DRA’s Shane Kolb sit as WORC directors. WORC is effectively Dakota Rural Action’s own “big, out-of-state” parent corporation. Dakota Rural Action also didn’t disclose that it relies on another set of enormous, wealthy corporations (called foundations) for the vast majority of its money — and almost all of it comes from out of state, the same grave sin that earns larger farming corporations so much of DRA’s wrath.
In 2000 alone DRA received a three-year, $90,000 grant from the Belvedere Fund “[t]o organize citizens and promote public policy that… challenges corporate control of the food industry in North Dakota.” The Belvedere Fund is a subservient subsidiary of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which has assets of over $70 million and earns more than $15 million every year on its stock portfolio. But the Dakota activists wouldn’t want that information to become public knowledge, as it just might blur the line between David and Goliath.
Dakota Rural Action, after all, portrays itself as the little guy who’s courageous enough to stand up to the big bullies. For the most part, South Dakota’s media outlets buy into this image, despite the way DRA has partnered with some of the biggest, baddest green groups in the nation. For instance, a 2001 advertising campaign run by the multi-million organization Friends of the Earth castigated South Dakota Congressman John Thune, claiming that he represented “Big Polluters” who wanted to “Pig Out” with taxpayer dollars. Anyone willing to read the fine print would see that Dakota Rural Action paid for part of this mid-term smear campaign.
DRA isn’t willing to put its name on all its partnerships, however. A Nebraska activist organization oddly named “Friends of the Constitution” (FOC) has operated one of the nation’s longest-running anti-hog farm campaigns. Nebraska’s version of Amendment E is called “Initiative 300,” and it dates all the way back to 1982. FOC’s mission is to keep corporate hog farmers out of Nebraska by any means necessary, and it has earned a reputation among the region’s farmers for being unusually aggressive in keeping potential out-of-state competitors from getting into the game at all.
In recent years, however, Friends of the Constitution has branched out into the Dakotas, in a reckless attempt to kick large-scale hog farms out of as much prairie land as possible. Any time a corporate citizen wants to build a hog lot, FOC can be counted on to show up in force — even when the potential builder has a spotless environmental record. FOC’s brand of activism is transparent and predictable. What’s hard to comprehend is where it gets the money required to traipse all across the Midwest, yanking out potential competitors by the roots.
Now we know. Between 1999 and 2000, the Educational Foundation of America (funded by the heirs to the Prentice-Hall textbook fortune) gave Dakota Rural Action $130,000 — earmarked specifically for Friends of the Constitution and its “Anti-Corporate-Farming Law Defense Project.” It may cost that much to destroy your competition, but the real cost of such anti-competitive activism can be measured in lost jobs and increased pork prices for all American consumers.
Dakota Rural Action may be good at counting votes, but the organization could use a few lessons in counting money. In its tax return for the year 2000, DRA reported receiving “direct public support” totaling $159,999. This amount is supposed to include private and government grants, as well as contributions from individuals (not including membership dues). Imagine our surprise, then, when we added up all of the documented grant payments made to DRA during that year and came up with a much bigger number ($202,500).
For an organization that routinely lies to the public about the “hazards” of corporate farms, lying to the IRS may come naturally. DRA seems to have a chronic problem in this regard. The group’s self-reported “direct public support” from 1998, 1999, and 2000 adds up to a total of $449,005. Again, the organization can’t possibly be telling the truth, since private foundations and government entities have collectively reported $540,500 in gifts to Dakota Rural Action during that time. That means there is over $91,000 unaccounted for.
Dakota Rural Action’s tax returns are rife with inaccuracies like these, some of which could constitute felonies if the IRS were to investigate and make a finding of fact. For instance, a 1998 grant of $10,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t reported anywhere (despite the fact that the IRS provides a line marked “government contributions (grants)” for that very purpose.
Elsewhere in that same 1998 tax return, DRA reported that it spent zero dollars on lobbying expenses (tax-exempt groups are strictly limited in the amount of money they are permitted to spend on lobbying). But 1998 was the year when Amendment E was contested in South Dakota. DRA accepted a $25,000 grant that year from the Bush Foundation specifically to “encourage citizen participation in the development of state agriculture policy.”
Dakota Rural Action led the charge to get Amendment E passed. Court documents show that DRA took credit for writing the constitutional amendment itself, claiming that “it was instrumental in drafting its language and donated substantial resources to the ballot initiative effort.” DRA’s parent group, the Western Organization of Resource Councils, bragged in its next newsletter that DRA “initiated the Amendment E campaign along with South Dakota Farmers Union.”
Because the voters effectively serve as legislators when they vote on ballot measures like Amendment E, any related campaigning is considered lobbying by the IRS. Dakota Rural Action solicited and was awarded a grant for work on a ballot initiative; it wrote the measure’s text and co-authored the voter’s guides distributed on election day; it worked tirelessly for the measure’s passage, took public credit for the victory, and then told the Internal Revenue Service that no lobbying was involved. If Dakota Rural Action doesn’t have a black eye over this, the IRS should give it one soon.
Dakota Rural Action has cultivated a squeaky-clean image, due largely to the proliferation of organic, anti-biotech, and other “alternative” farmers who are willing to jump on the anti-corporate bandwagon. Most of DRA’s practical work, however, seems aimed at something a lot dirtier: harnessing this anti-corporate sentiment into a movement designed to cripple corporate competitors and leave its membership as the only farmers left standing.
Amentment E is a prime example. Mainstream farmers and ranchers are working to have Amendment E overturned in the courts. When the South Dakota Farm Bureau and the South Dakota Sheep Growers petitioned to have their arguments heard, Dakota Rural Action (represented by the massive, foundation-funded EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund — previously an arm of the Sierra Club) had the audacity to file a motion contending that the Farm Bureau and Sheep Growers lacked “standing” to be heard. The judge determined that DRA’s “claim of lack of standing is, in any event, much ado about nothing,” ruling that the mainstream farm groups had just as much a right to be there as their activist competitors.