Topeka There might be more than meets the nose to the stink wafting from state-subsidized composting of dead cattle and manure at three western Kansas feedlots.
"I don't have a problem at all with the research," said Craig Volland, conservation chairman for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club. "My question was how this money was obtained and was it necessary, really, for this to be publicly financed? And what was the process that this money was distributed?"
Allie Devine, a former Kansas agriculture secretary turned lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Assn., helped secure the $422,000 in grants partially distributed among three association member feedlots, two of which are operated by former association presidents.
The award came during the closing days of Gov. Bill Graves' administration from the Commerce Department and Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The health agency initially rejected the livestock association's grant application but later found a way to get money to the group after encouragement from officials at the departments of commerce and agriculture.
The Journal-World first reported the grants in March. That story explained the deal was arranged in part by a Commerce Department official who later went to work for a company hired by the livestock association to work on the composting project.
At that time, KDHE and the livestock association refused to disclose which feedlots received the funding or even their locations, citing the beneficiaries' need for privacy.
But Atty. Gen. Phill Kline agreed with the Journal-World that state open records law required the information be made public and KDHE relented, releasing the names and addresses.
The three feedlots involved in the experiment are Ward Feed Yard Inc. of Larned, Lane County Feeders Inc. of Dighton, and Supreme Cattle Feeders of Kismet.
Ward Feed Yard is operated by Lee Borck. Lane County Feeders is operated by Jim Meetz. Borck and Meetz are former presidents of the Kansas Livestock Assn. Supreme Cattle Feeders is owned by Agri Beef Co.
Neither Borck nor Meetz would comment, referring questions to Devine.
Devine, the livestock association's general counsel, said there was nothing wrong with contracting with former livestock association presidents.
"You can't make the favoritism argument with that," she said, insisting that choosing feedlots headed by former association presidents was not unusual.
She said there were many former association presidents in the Kansas cattle industry because each serves a one-year term.
But Volland said there were hundreds of other feedlots the association could have chosen to receive the grants.
"It's true that almost all of those folks belong to the KLA, but I doubt there have been hundreds of presidents," he said.
Information provided by the Kansas Department of Agriculture shows that in 2002, there were 225 feedlots with 1,000 head of cattle or more; 64 of those are in the larger categories of 16,000 head or more.
Devine said the three feedlots were chosen because the association wanted a wide geographic base for the study and each of the feedlots already had experience composting.
In the Journal-World's March story about the project, Devine refused to identify the three feedlots, saying she had promised them anonymity. She said the feedlot owners were skittish about publicity because they received threatening calls from animal rights activists whenever their names were mentioned in news media.
In a letter to the Attorney General's Office, Devine also said drawing attention to the facilities could make them a target for terrorists.
In addition, she said, the livestock association and the feedlots were pursuing potential commercial applications for manure compost and the disclosure "would lead to a premature announcement of future business intentions."
After a formal request for the records under the Kansas Open Records Act was denied in late April by KDHE, the Journal-World asked Kline, the attorney general, to encourage the state agency to comply with the law. KDHE is one of the agencies that awarded money to the association for the project and possessed records about it.
After examining the situation, Kline told KDHE in a letter that Kansas law did require it to make public the requested information.
He also wrote, "I am deeply committed to transparency in government and I believe that any closure of public records should be the exception, not the rule."
Devine refused to specify how much money each of the feedlots was receiving under the contracts. But she said it was not much considering the amount of work the feedlots were doing to conduct the research.
A letter from the livestock association to KDHE, also obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act, said facilities contracted for the project would be paid $5,000 per month not to exceed $25,000.
At the center of the issue is the composting project, in which manure is being spread in windrows and dead cattle are being covered with straw and manure.
The livestock association said the research would help produce an environmentally friendly and money-making solution to disposing of animal waste and dead animals.
Public records show that in the closing days of the Graves administration in 2002, the state signed contracts appropriating $422,000 to the livestock association for the project. In its grant applications, the association said it would match that amount from its own coffers.
Before leaving to join the association, Devine had served as state agriculture secretary under Graves. While with the association, she applied for the project monies by appealing to former colleagues in the Graves Cabinet.
Connie Fischer, then a marketing consultant at the Commerce Department, helped promote the grants. After Graves left office, Fischer went to work for Advanced Market Concepts, a consulting firm hired by the livestock association to do marketing work on the composting project.
"You have a case there that confirms the extremely close relationship between the livestock association and state government," Volland said.
Devine said the association received no special treatment in getting the monies.
The project is expected to be completed in August or September, she said.