Grand Forks' handling of Fufeng milling project is perfect example — of what not to do
The city council and EDC’s response to community members, landowners and farmers honestly was the most tone deaf I’ve experienced in my 40 years of agricultural coverage.
It makes sense that leaders in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a city in the heart of farm country, seek to bolster its economy by encouraging agricultural companies to build there.
My hope is that the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation lands a deal with a company that is mutually beneficial to farmers, the city and community residents. As a rural resident living in the region that the EDC serves, someone whose husband commutes to Grand Forks five days a week for work and whose daughter attends the university in the city, I have those reasons and more to support the efforts to maintain a vibrant economy.
To accomplish that, though, will require humility and recognition on the part of city leaders and the EDC that they made some mistakes in their pursuit of Fufeng, a wet milling corn facility.
Fourteen months after the controversial project was announced, the Grand Forks City Council on Feb. 6, voted 5-0 to halt it .
The decision came after an Air Force official wrote a letter that unequivocally said that the Chinese-based project, which would have been located 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base, would be a threat to national security.
The city council and EDC’s response to community members, landowners and farmers honestly was the most tone deaf I’ve experienced in my 40 years of agricultural coverage. The agricultural startups of cooperatives and companies that I’ve covered during my career have both succeeded and failed, but what they have in common is that the owners engaged with the public and the media.
Not once since the Fufeng project was announced in November 2021 did I receive a personal response from Fufeng when I emailed the chief operating officer to ask questions about it. I did get a response once — through a marketing firm employed by the company.
That’s in sharp contrast to other agricultural companies, including American Crystal Sugar Co., the North Dakota State Mill and Elevator and Black Gold Farms. Those are major players not only regionally, but also nationally. I have interviewed CEOs from all three of those companies for stories, both positive and negative, in person and on the phone.
The Grand Forks City Council voted to halt the Fufeng project only after it received the letter, despite after more than a year of concerned citizens, North Dakota’s two U.S. senators , senators and representatives across the United States and a U.S. Air Force major expressing their opposition to the plant.
Instead of listening to those concerns, city leaders dismissed them, and the president of the city council went so far as to resort to name calling, referring to the major as a “yahoo” on social media and questioning the credibility of another opponent, saying that he was being paid by a Fufeng competitor to stymie the project.
That was just one of the examples of the way city leaders overlooked the concerns of city residents, the landowners whose property would have been located near the wet corn milling plant and farmers who were worried about the effect that Fufeng would have had on cooperative elevators .
Meanwhile, the city council and city leaders appeared not to take seriously one of its own members, a former Grand Forks public works director who expressed concern about the effect on the city’s water supply.
Despite all of those issues — and more — and hearing from stakeholders at nearly every city council meeting since November 2021 and a petition to put the Fufeng plant up to a vote of the people, Grand Forks City Council forged ahead with the project until Feb. 6, 2023, several days after it received the letter from the Air Force official.
The city council and mayor deflected the decision not to halt the Fufeng project earlier by saying that the federal government didn’t give a definite answer to U.S. security concerns until the February letter.
While that's technically a true statement it’s akin to a kid saying that he touched the hot stove because he didn’t have access to a scientific study telling him that he would be burned. The anecdotal evidence, together with the strong citizen opposition to the project, in my opinion, should have been enough to reconsider it.
If the Grand Forks City Council, mayor and Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation are going to regain the trust of disgruntled community members, farmers, and yes, this reporter, they will need to examine how they can better approach agricultural-related economic development and then convey that to us.
Pursuing a company whose leadership is willing to listen to the citizens and talk to the media would be a big step in the right direction. As an Agweek reporter, my job depends on delivering agricultural news, both positive and negative, to readers. I can’t do that if people won’t communicate with me.
Ann Bailey lives on a farmstead near Larimore, N.D., that has been in her family since 1911. You can reach her at 218-779-8093 or firstname.lastname@example.org.