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The last crop

As a large columbia farm is sold,
others worry that developers will pave their paradise
Sunday, December 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:26 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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W.B. Smith, former owner of the W.B. Smith Feed Mill and Hatchery, stands in the doorway of the workshop on the 840-acre farm. His father started the farm in 1930 and passed it along to W.B. in 1965.

In a small, makeshift office lined with brown filing cabinets, stacks of business papers and the occasional cobweb, W.B. Smith holds eight black-and-white windows into his past.

The photographs, bent by time, show thousands of white turkeys standing feather to feather, pincushion-size chicks warming themselves near heaters and a young Smith walking past rectangular hog houses that line the hills south of Columbia.

William Smith, W.B.’s father, started the Smith hatchery in 1930 on 60 acres off Route K, about 10 miles south of downtown Columbia. It grew to 840 acres, with 200,000 chickens producing 10 million eggs a year. In 1960, William Smith built a 120-foot mill to produce feed for his livestock, which had since expanded to include turkeys and hogs. By 1965, when W.B. took over daily operations of the hatchery, the mill was producing 5,000 tons of feed.

It was at this time that W.B. branched off into the wholesale feed market. Forty years later, in 2005, the W.B. Smith Feed Mill and Hatchery produced 90,000 tons of feed — more than it ever had.

But the low hum of the feed mill, nearly constant for decades, fell silent earlier this year. On Jan. 1, Smith completed the sale of his 840 acres to Jose Lindner, a Columbia developer. Lindner, who developed the Forum and Nifong shopping centers, has acquired a total of 1,024 acres near Smith Hatchery and Old Plank roads and has made efforts to buy nearly 500 more acres that would give his company, Providence Farms LLC, control of a large swath of land between Columbia and the Missouri River. Lindner has yet to reveal his plans, but city and county officials expect the developer to eventually construct a mixture of businesses, homes and recreational facilities.

Whatever Lindner has in mind, the scope of the development would forever alter the character of rural Boone County, as well as the city of Columbia, which would likely annex the acreage and help build the necessary roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

The uncertainty of new development is a worry to most nearby residents, who say they moved here to get away from city life. Only a handful of small country homes, some situated on sizeable tracts of raw land, border the former feed mill. One of them is owned by Elizabeth Wallace, whose home sits about 300 yards from the former feed mill’s entrance. Wallace bought what she calls her “little piece of paradise” — 15 hilly acres covered with ash, oak and hickory trees — 10 years ago. She, her husband and three children tend to a small vegetable garden and raise chickens. They even grew accustomed to the feed mill’s 24-hour hum, which she said made it like living next to a railroad track.

Wallace said development, particularly projects along Grindstone Parkway, Bethel Street and Old Plank Road, has already left its mark on the area. Nearly all of her 100 chickens were killed by foxes and other wildlife that have been displaced by the construction.

Before Lindner finalized the purchase of Smith’s land, Lindner offered Wallace $109,000 for her home and acreage. She turned him down. Still, though, Wallace realizes that some day soon the sale of the W.B. Feed Mill and Hatchery could make her family’s life very different.

“We love it out here,” Wallace says. “I never dreamed we’d be looking at development this soon.”

The potential for a large-scale development project on nearly 1,000 acres of rural habitat has caught the attention of planning officials and conservationists. Some of them say local government should start considering ways to protect the area’s ecology, including the Missouri River, before Lindner develops a plan for the property.

“Now would be a great time to be thinking before you have expensive obstacles in the way,” said Russell Duker, a member of the Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission. “The problem is we don’t have the resources now. The staff in the county is well overworked.”

Marty Smith, W.B.’s 51-year-old son, planned on taking over the family business one day, but his father had apparently been waiting for the right opportunity to sell.

When Lindner approached him through an attorney in early 2005, W.B. named his price. Lindner agreed, and W.B. said it seemed like a good time to call it quits.

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A working gasoline pump and the home of a mill employee on the W.B. Smith Feed Mill and Hatchery will be bulldozed by the end of the year. When owner W.B. Smith sold his 840-acre feed mill at the beginning of the year, he agreed to remove the property’s 60 buildings — including six residential homes — as well as several barns, a garage and other structures.

“I have always been of the opinion that you have to change,” the 82-year-old farmer said. “If you don’t, time goes off and leaves you.”

W.B. Smith is pure country. A sturdy six-footer with a deep Midwestern drawl, he has a farmer’s work ethic and an I-can-do-it-myself attitude. He attributes some of his no-nonsense demeanor to his time in the Navy. Though he never saw combat, Smith flew torpedo bombers from 1943 to 1945.

On an early fall day, W.B. relaxed in a dark brown recliner in the living room of his Rollins Road home, where he has lived for 48 years. The television across the room was tuned to the country music channel, with musician Kenny Chesney on stage. A plaque sits on a small end table. A parting gift from Smith’s biggest customer, it reads: “In recognition of over 30 years of dedicated service in feed manufacturing and delivery to both Banquet Food and ConAgra Food contract turkey growing operations.”

When W.B.’s father started the hatchery, he would pack cardboard boxes with recently hatched chicks and ship them to Arkansas in five hollowed-out school buses. In the mid-1960s, the family began raising turkeys and, in 1989, hogs. At one point, the W.B. Smith Feed Mill and Hatchery was home to as many as 400,000 turkeys and 1,250 sows. He had built 15 hog houses on the property’s north side and was sending some 300 hogs to slaughterhouses in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois each week. A man who values versatility, W.B. also made and sold dog food, and during some winters he produced cat litter.

Although William Smith originally built the feed mill to handle the growth of the booming farm, feed production soon took off, becoming the family’s primary business. Each week, 45 to 50 tractor-trailers delivered corn that W.B. stored in three metal towers that held 17,000 bushels each. Twenty-four hours a day, the machines measured, combined and crushed the corn with soybeans, meat scraps and minerals to produce up to 22 tons of feed an hour.

By the time W.B. sold the family business, the mill was producing nine different turkey feeds and three different hog and chicken feeds. A half-dozen tractor-trailers, loaded with 24 tons of feed, left the mill five days a week. Nearly all of their contents ended up at farms associated with ConAgra Foods, one of North America’s largest packaged food companies.

“He did within a day what we’d do within a month,” said Joe Haley of Bourn Feed and Supply, one of Columbia’s two remaining mills.

W.B. smiled when he said he attacked his business like a baseball game. “You go out to win,” he said.

But as the years passed, running an operation the size of the Smith Feed Mill and Hatchery presented new challenges. Smith had more trouble finding enough quality employees, and he found himself confronted with increased state and federal regulations on feed production. In 1998, a new feed law went into effect in Missouri, regulating the ingredients that could and could not be used in animal feed. Among other ingredients, the state tests and regulates a feed’s protein, calcium, phosphorus, salt and aflatoxines, which are by-products of natural molds contained in agricultural crops. The state also enforces labeling guarantees.

“Back in the day,” Smith said, “you didn’t have any of the regulations you have today. You can’t do things the way you did it 20 or 30 years ago.”

One afternoon, Ken Midkiff, conservation chairman for the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club, took a flight in a small plane over Boone County, and he didn’t like what he saw. Boone County is gradually losing its green space. Midkiff said he found it difficult to spot large tracts of untouched land. The county is increasingly seeing signs of urban sprawl: Sporadic developments are slowly swallowing Boone County’s family farms and agricultural lands. Today, Midkiff said, citing a recent analysis, fewer than a dozen county residents make their living primarily as farmers.

“You can almost count them on two hands,” he said.

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The workshop, which houses tools to repair W.B. Smith’s farm equipment, is one of the few structures still standing on the Smith farm. New owner and developer Jose Lindner requested that this building remain part of the property. About 60 other buildings are being torn down before the end of the year.

In September, a survey conducted by Columbia officials involved in the city’s “visioning” process found that residents are very concerned about the impacts of growth and development as well as local government’s ability to protect natural areas. Indeed, Tom Vernon, a Columbia resident and land preservationist, said the city and county have failed to anticipate the encroachment of development and put together a conservation program that could preserve undeveloped land, including farms and ranches.

Vernon, a former MU professor and member of the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition, a nonprofit group that aims to protect areas of natural significance and preserve open space, calls his vision “balance by preservation.” For every 100 acres that are developed, another 100 acres somewhere else in the county should be preserved, Vernon said. He wants city and county governments to work with the U.S. Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Project, a program in which the federal government will pay up to 50 percent to buy the development rights for agricultural lands. Vernon said some kind of plan is overdue if one of the area’s prime resources is to be preserved.

“Part of the charm of the area is there are so many nice wooded areas and agricultural land,” Vernon said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Midkiff worries that the development that has already taken place has damaged the Missouri River corridor. The federal government lists the Missouri River as an impaired body of water. More development would mean more runoff — everything from car oil to fertilizers — that would wash off bluff-top lawns and parking lots and be channeled into small tributaries that eventually flush into the Missouri River. Midkiff said it could threaten fish, birds and “your typical Missouri animals,” such as muskrats and beavers.

“Fish don’t do very well in pesticides,” Midkiff said. “Anything that adds to that chemical load basically creates a chemical soup.”

Duker, of the county planning and zoning commission, said failing to protect the river would be a mistake for another reason. With development, the Missouri River could become one of Boone County’s greatest assets, drawing people from around the state to go on boat tours and visit riverfront restaurants, as well as to enjoy natural and environmental attractions such as caves, walking trails and Indian mounds.

Duker said he’d be interested in creating a special district to establish and oversee land-use restrictions along the Missouri River corridor. “I think there needs to be some planning in that area,” he said. “There needs to be some more discussion on the entire river area rather than let it develop haphazardly.”

But other planning and zoning commissioners say the county should wait for Lindner to reveal his plans before imposing land-use restrictions. The land is too varied for a blanket code, they say, and county officials need to consider each developer’s proposal individually.

“What’s appropriate on one (property) is not appropriate on another,” said Carl Freiling, a planning and zoning commissioner. “It’s very hard to create a general rule that’s not highly flexible.”

Lindner, who could not be reached for comment, has not yet submitted a request to have any portion of the land‘s zoning changed from agricultural to residential or commercial. As it stands, the zoning allows for only one residential unit every 10 acres. But Lindner would likely seek a Planned Development, a special zoning classification that includes a mixture of commercial, residential and recreational areas, said Stan Shawver, director of Boone County’s Planning and Building Department.

Meanwhile, Lindner is trying to acquire more land. Anne and Carl Orazio have 150 acres bordering the Missouri River, south of the Wallace home. Right now, life is quiet for the Orazios, who live in Columbia but visit the property regularly. They still spend evenings hiking the bluffs and small valleys that dominate their property, pausing to watch the autumn leaves change. Miles away from the ambient light of Columbia, the night sky fills with stars.

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Miguel Gonzalez, one of W.B. Smith’s employees, uses a blowtorch to remove metal supports from blocks of concrete that were part of demolished buildings on the Smith farm.

Lindner has offered to buy the couple’s riverfront property, but the Orazios declined to sell the land, which is being used to raise organic vegetables. “We always thought because of the Smith feed mill we were safe,” said Anne Orazio. “We always thought it would stop development.”

Lindner has also expressed interest in more than 240 acres that, if purchased, would link the feed mill property to Columbia’s city limits. If Lindner acquires the two tracts — 238 acres owned by Dorsey Martin and 15 acres belonging to Larry and Frances Thornburg — city and county officials said they expect the city of Columbia to annex the 1,000-plus acres. It would be the second-largest single annexation in Columbia history, City Manager Bill Watkins said, and it would measure nearly the size of the MU campus.

Columbia would then pay part of the costs of installing larger roads and utility lines needed for development, recouping some of that expense through wastewater service fees as residents move in. It would be to the city’s benefit, Watkins said, to plan ahead.

“I think there’s a large advantage to look at a larger geographic development,” Watkins said. “There are some real advantages, in my mind anyway, of planning roads, planning sewers.”

W.B. Smith said he expected that, some day, he would receive an offer for his land that he couldn’t refuse. In the past, he had discussed selling the family business with his son Marty by doling out the land in 10-acre parcels. Instead, in August 2005, he agreed to sell Lindner 139 acres of the feed mill. Four months later, he sold the rest of the property.

Since then, W.B and Marty have heard all the rumors about what may happen to the land — a Wal-Mart, million-dollar homes, a championship-caliber golf course. Marty said he heard that Lindner wanted the land between the feed mill and the Missouri River so he could someday establish a riverboat gambling company.

W.B. laughed; he’s heard the rumor, too. One rumor that he hasn’t heard is that Lindner would keep a portion of the land zoned for agricultural use. “People and animals don’t mix,” he said.

Although he jumped at the opportunity to sell the mill, W.B. asked to keep the feed mill running for the time being. Lindner offered Smith five years to continue operating the mill, but the developer wanted to impose noise controls, something the father and son said would have been nearly impossible to enforce.

“We had our trucks going out, trucks going in,” W.B. said. “There’s a bunch of noise you can’t control.”

Dec. 30, 2005, was W.B.’s final day producing feed. As days go, it was nothing special, he said. The chickens, turkeys and hogs have all been sold. The feed mill came down in May — a shallow pit is the only sign it ever existed — followed by the 17 chicken houses and 15 hog houses. An 11-acre concrete scrap pile sits on the property’s east end, and a smaller concrete pile marks the location of W.B.’s former office. According to the sale’s agreement, W.B. was responsible for removing most of the property’s 60 buildings, including six small residential homes, several barns, a full maintenance garage, a concrete plant and a small gas pump. He said he expects all the demolition to be completed by Christmas.

W.B. still heads to the former mill at 7:30 a.m. most days, dressed the same as ever: a light-brown shirt tucked into same-color pants. “Most of the people in the feed business wear brown khakis,” W.B. said, “the same color of the dust.”

At some point, father and son will, for the last time, watch the sun turn the morning’s dew into golden sparkles and listen to the empty silence of the land. They’ll walk past the nearby pastures where, for now, cattle still graze, and through the woods, where wild turkeys still seek cover.

“Those are kind of the sights that you take for granted,” Marty said. “I’ll miss some of that — being out here in the middle of nowhere.”

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