The streets that line South Dakota’s “silver city” may not be paved with gold, but for at least a few months each year, many of the roads that lead to the community of 761 are surrounded by a rich, golden glow.
Onida is in Sully County, the home of the highest per-capita earners in the nation. Much of that financial success, according to locals, is owed to tens of thousands of acres of sunflowers.
In fact, the county recently was recognized by the National Sunflower Association as “the epicenter of U.S. sunflower production.”
“When they all start blooming, it’s just beautiful,” Tim Luken, general manager of Oahe Grain Corp. in Onida, said of the crop that has made Sully County famous. “The sunflower is a weed, (but) through genetics, they have produced hybrid sunflowers” that are sold for oils, sunflower seeds, birdseed and various other purposes. “You would be surprised how many people stop to take pictures.”
A rotation of sunflowers, winter and spring wheat and corn keeps 400,000 acres of Sully County farmland in nearly constant production and earned the county national recognition as being among the highest per-capita earners.
“There’s a lot of big farmers around here, and there are just 1,300-and-some people to spread it around,” Mayor Gary Wickersham explained, so “part of it is the fact that nobody lives here. … The counties around us all have at least twice as many people living there, and they’re the same size.”
“A small farm is like 3,000 acres,” Luken agreed. “We’ve got farmers out here that farm 35,000 to 40,000 acres.”
An aerial look at the community shows the “Onida: 761” sign at the edge of town could almost denote a count of grain bins, rather than people. Marileen Tilberg, who serves as both the editor of the local newspaper and the executive director of the development corporation, dubs her town “the silver city.”
“When you come over that hill south of Onida, a person can’t help but notice the ‘silver city’ ahead,” she wrote in a recent column in the Onida Watchman. “The abundance of grain bins hide the little town and glimmer in the sunshine.”
The city’s collection of grain bins started in the 1940s, with a government grain storage program, but many of the original 3,300-bushel bins have been replaced with larger-capacity storage—some of them holding 100,000 bushels—since they were sold off to private farmers.
“Farmers like to store grain. It’s like their security blanket. They just don’t want to get rid of it all,” Luken said. “Farming is a gamble. … These guys play with Las Vegas rules every day. … The market changes every day. … If you’ve got a 50,000-bushel bin of wheat and it goes up 10 cents, that’s $5,000. If it goes down 10 cents, you lost $5,000.”
Ethanol plant creates opportunity, friction
With an already flourishing ag economy, most in Onida are reveling at the idea that Ringneck Energy officials saw promise in the community while visiting the area on a hunting trip.
“It’s pretty unusual, to be able to have the (necessary) amount of infrastructure available for an ethanol site” readily available, said Walt Wendland, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ringneck Energy, noting that Onida has natural gas lines with surplus capacity, solid rail lines, a main highway, high-volume rural water, and electrical transmission lines, plus a steady grain supply. “Feedstock is 80 percent of your cost in an ethanol facility, so being able to be there, where the supply is and getting it as a reasonable cost is huge.”
Wendland, who has worked in three other ethanol startups, said he had become enamored with the idyllic nature of Onida while driving from there to Pierre on a hunting trip nearly two years ago—after more than a decade visiting the area.
“I remember looking out the window … and seeing all that grain storage and the flat land. I didn’t know that type of thing existed out here,” said Wendland, who moved from Iowa to a farm south of Highmore 10 years ago. He and his wife are renting a house in Onida until the project is completed.
If you ask most anyone in Onida, the coming ethanol plant is the spur to the local economy that has been needed for generations.
“There’s just nothing here but working for a farmer or pounding nails for a contractor or something,” Wickersham said. “I can’t count the number of people who have had to leave here to get a good job. … (The ethanol plant) will bring 30 to 40 of those kind of jobs to town.”
Wendland said a majority of those workers will be hired locally.
Talk around town consists a lot of “when the ethanol plant is built” scenarios, including a need for a motel and a fourth cafe, the promise of two new apartment complexes, a plethora of other new housing construction, increased enrollment at the school, and countless other opportunities.
“The town won the lottery by having this plant (come) here,” Luken said.
But, for now, the project is on hold, because of the opposition of approximately a dozen families who live adjacent to the site approved for construction of the new plant.
“This thing isn’t for everybody in town” because of the cost of investment, said Steve Hyde, a retired farmer who lives on land his family has owned for over 135 years, about one-fourth of a mile from the site of the ethanol plant.
Those interested in investing in the facility have to independently contribute $50,000 toward startup and show a financial statement of at least $1 million. But Wendland said this tactic is not meant to be exclusive, but rather an opportunity to spread wealth throughout the community.
“It’s not all about bringing wealth and working with the rich farmers or whatever. It’s about the rich farmers trying to help the community,” he said. “We’re doing this to provide good jobs and try to keep young families in the community or bring young people back to the community. … We’re all trying to invest in something that’s going to put Onida on the map, and keep Onida’s agriculture and community and school strong for years to come. Why wouldn’t you want to add value to agriculture? Why does this community think it’s OK to ship all of their grains to other states and other countries? Let’s add value to it here.”
The Sully County Commission had approved conditional use and building permits for the plant, one-half mile south of the community, but the decision was challenged when neighbors to the project realized the land was improperly zoned for agricultural industrial purposes. The project was referred to a vote in June 2015, and the public supported it by 79 percent. The opponents, however, have appealed the public decision, too, and a ruling from the S.D. Supreme Court is expected by late spring.
“In any situation like this, I think the 80 percent of the people that it doesn’t affect will always vote against the 20 percent that it does affect, because … if you can convince people that they’re going to make money, I think you’re going to convince them … as long as it’s not going to affect them they’re going to vote for it,” Steve Hyde said.
Hyde and his wife, Kathy, a retired Sully Buttes High School science teacher, contend that ethanol production is hazardous to the health of those within a 4-mile radius of the facility, and those who can’t voice their concern over the issue are at the greatest risk.
Children’s “airways are narrower than adults’,” Kathy Hyde said. “They actually breathe quicker. Therefore, they breathe in more air pollutants. … And they spend a lot of time outdoors, and they’re active, so they’re breathing faster, so they are breathing in more of these air pollutants.”
A 2015 article published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, supports the Hydes’ claims that ethanol is 30 times more hazardous to the health of humans than it once was thought to be.
Wendland said he was not familiar with the study, and its findings likely have little bearing on what is happening in Onida.
“The referenced facility in Decatur is a very large faculty using an entirely different process than Ringneck will be using. We will be using dry mill technology, whereas ADM uses wet mill technology. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”
Wendland insists his company is doing all it can to ensure safety measures are followed according to Environmental Protection Agency standards.
“It doesn’t matter if they live across the road or two miles down the road,” he said. “Those environmental emissions have to be at safe levels by the time they leave our property. That’s the way the EPA rules go, and those are the rules we are following.”
The S.D. Department of Environment & Natural Resources ruled that Ringneck Energy will be responsible for self-monitoring its emissions levels—a decision the Hydes say is risky.
“Anytime anybody is self-monitoring, I think it leaves the window open for dishonesty,” Steve Hyde said.
Still, a majority of the community disagrees with the concerns of the Hydes and others.
“How do you try to fight what everybody wants with 10 or 15 people … when everybody thinks it’s a good thing for the community?” Luken asked.
Wendland said Ringneck Energy refuses to let the disagreements slow down progress, which already has begun, with groundwork at the site.
“We’re going to get this thing done, one way or another,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate that some of the people don’t see the economic benefit that this will bring to the community and choose to fight against it.”
Wendland said the company can’t slow down, because farmers don’t slow down.
“Farmers always figure out a way to over-produce,” he said. “We need to continue to build demand and put demand in the right place, for the right reasons, and that’s where Onida fits in. I don’t want to push another ethanol plant out of business. I want to build where it makes sense, and where we’re not competing with others in the industry. … This whole central South Dakota has been bypassed.”
According to many in town, the ethanol plant already has had a positive impact on the community.
“If you advertise a house for sale around here, in a week, it’s sold,” often to someone who wasn’t even in the market for a new home prior to the listing, according to Wickersham. “If something comes up for sale and it’s better than theirs, they buy it. … If you put a for-sale sign on a house, you’d better get out of the way, because somebody’s standing there with a checkbook, because they know this ethanol plant is coming (and) they know real estate is actually going up.”
The ethanol plant is the next step of a commitment Wickersham said he’d made to his mayoral predecessor and the contractor who employed him more than four decades ago, Albin Stahl, whom he described as a “promoter.”
“We built a lot of houses for a lot of people you’d never dream could build a new house, and I vowed to see this thing through to fruition for him,” Wickersham said. “My vision is to create jobs to get some of the quality people that had to leave here to come back. There are some really intelligent people who had to go somewhere to get a … good job. … The plant will bring back some quality people to quality jobs that can afford to live here and be close to their parents and grandparents.”
Preparing for housing crunch to become housing rush
With the potential for at least 40 new local jobs after an estimated 200 people cycle through town on construction crews, an already crunched housing market is expected to feel increased pressure if the S.D. Supreme Court rules in favor of Ringneck Energy.
“There already are not enough homes in Onida for everyone,” said Jen Nye, owner of Nye Lumber. “It’s a great place to live, but there’s just no place to live.”
Nye was raised in Onida and moved away only long enough to go to college. When she returned, the housing market forced her and her young daughter to move back into her childhood home.
“I had to come back and live with my mom” 22 years ago, she said. “I don’t know if (the housing cycle) ever ends in Onida. There’s just nowhere to live and nowhere to live and maybe there’s a couple places open, and then it’s crammed up again.”
In an effort to help the community through the expected population transition, Jamie and Jen Nye and Gary and Shelley Wickersham, together as NyeWick LLC, purchased a newer house that had caught fire on an acreage south of Highmore and moved it onto land the Wickershams own.
“Knowing what the housing market has been like recently in Onida and knowing some of the nicer houses that have sold and what they have sold for, we think we can make some money” repairing and selling it, Nye said. “If we built a house of this size from scratch, I don’t think we would. I would make money on the materials at the lumber yard, and (Wickersham) would make money on the concrete.”
The fire was contained mostly to the rafters over the main living space of the house. A portion of the roof and rafters will have to be rebuilt, and the house will need a new basement, heat system, basement plumbing and some wiring and floor coverings, but the majority of the windows, siding and other fixtures will need only minimal replacement.
“You can’t necessarily make money on a spec house in Onida, but … you should do things to try and help your community,” Nye said. She added that it’s hard work, and it’s not very profitable, but they believe this kind of project “is what keeps your community going.”
Recently, the City Council has focused on cleaning up older, run-down housing to give the community a facelift.
“Everybody’s always against change, but once it’s done, you look around, and (realize) it looks a lot better,” Wickersham said. “I’m as guilty as everybody (else, but) it makes things look a lot nicer.”
“I think about all of the projects that all of the contractors have done just around Onida … just making it look nicer,” Nye said. “They all have a list a mile long. Most of our contractors we have now have their whole summer planned already for this coming summer. They’re that busy.”
Building innovations for education
Last year, the Agar-Blunt-Onida School District showed its commitment to the education of generations to come by approving an $8.5 million renovation and construction project on the main campus in Onida.
“I think everybody realized it was time to build a new school” after public meetings regarding the 90-year-old building, Superintendent Kevin Pickner said of the project. “The school is the lifeline—in many aspects—of small communities.”
A new high school; locker, coaches’, wrestling and weight rooms; and a bus barn were built on previously undeveloped land adjacent to the 1950s-era gym during the 2014-15 school year.
“While we were in the last year of the old building, all of that building was going on, and then, the last day of school … they had it done enough that all of the kids moved everything” from the old high school to the new one, Pickner said.
Over the summer, an office/classroom wing was built where the 90-year-old high school once stood, connecting the elementary, the gym and new high school.
“Everything was on short timelines,” Pickner said. “The Monday after graduation, the wrecking ball started (demolishing the high school). It was stressful, but it worked. We didn’t have to vacate (and) have classes” elsewhere.
With the dust barely settled, all 265 ABO students began the 2015-16 school year in their respective classrooms, including 30 who occupy the Blunt elementary attendance center 18 miles away from the main campus.
“It was quite a project, and we’re close to being finished,” Pickner said.
Now comes the biggest part of the project: paying for it. Thanks to the district’s broad, 1,223-square-mile landmass, the project was funded by capital outlay certificates that will be repaid over the next 15 years.
“When you’re in a smaller … geographically isolated community, most of our contractors come from Sioux Falls (and) Rapid City,” Pickner said. “That cost increased our cost, because they’re having to get here, and the materials come from far away.”
The façade of Sully Buttes High School is a dark brick, not steel or stucco, and the central commons area has a higher roof to accommodate “clear story” construction that allows for more natural, “green” heating and cooling practices.
“Aesthetically, it’s pleasing. It’s different (and) the people like to be in there. It’s their hangout,” Pickner said.
But the “clear story” serves a functional purpose, too.
The open second story allows in natural light and large ceiling fans force warm air downward during school hours, to keep students warm in the wintertime. Both the addition and the older parts of the building are heated and cooled by a geothermal system under the practice football field connected to a boiler/cooler room inside the school. That water then courses through pipes that wind through the 80,000-square-foot facility. The entire facility also is equipped with “smart” thermostats that conserve energy by decreasing the strain on the HVAC system when students aren’t present.
Though it wasn’t the initial motivation for “going green,” Pickner said, doing so has provided an additional learning opportunity, whether students are fully aware or not: “We’re teaching our kids and future generations that we have to start striving, when possible, to be better stewards of the environment. … It’s a pretty common mantra, nowadays, to ‘go green’ when you can, (but) probably the biggest reason was the payback and cost savings over time.”
Though much of ABO’s facilities are new and modern, the consolidated school district holds to tradition in other ways.
“Across the state … they’ve heard ‘Sully Buttes’ before,” from the school’s 85 state tournament appearances since the consolidation of the Onida and Blunt school districts in 1971, according to Pickner. “We’ve been traditionally good at athletics and extracurriculars. We’re small, but as small as we are, (we’re) very strong. … Financially, we are able to continue offering (activities), but our enrollment continues to slowly decline. If we’ve cut something, we’ve added something.”
Since construction of the new high school, family and consumer sciences education has become a full-time offering, making possible a Family, Career and Community Leaders of America chapter. Other new activities include FFA and oral interpretation.
“All students have the ability to be involved, find a niche (and) be successful,” Pickner said. “We ask a lot of our kids … but they’re usually able to keep up with the main reason they’re here: their academic/school work.”
The district has found creative ways to avoid asking too much of its students and staff in other ways, however.
The last of each day’s eighth period is reserved for chorus and homeroom, to prevent students who have to leave early for extracurriculars from missing out on core content areas. And study hall periods are covered by a full-time monitor in one designated classroom, rather than a teacher.
“You have a certified teacher who can then teach seven periods. … Let’s use them for their knowledge,” Pickner said.
Staff development, too, is strategically planned. School dismisses 30 minutes early each Wednesday, to prevent the need for full days off from learning.
Hunting, fishing lure out-of-staters to area
Most Onida residents say that they have everything they need in Onida and everything they want nearby. In fact, the area is a haven for those who want to get away from busier lifestyles.
“I think it’s the extracurricular stuff that draws people,” said Wickersham, who said he has poured basements with his construction business for people he had assumed were retiring. “They’re not. They just want to get up by that river, so they can do something. The hunting and fishing in this country is phenomenal.”
“I think we’ve got a teacher or two who came out because they like to hunt and fish,” Pickner agreed.
The locals who don’t own land can have a hard time even finding a place to hunt, because many local farmers capitalized on the outdoors paradise of the area.
“When the prices were low, they found ways to increase their income by charging people to hunt, and it got to be a big thing (in) South Dakota,” Luken said.
Wendland was one of the out-of-staters lured to South Dakota while on a hunting getaway. He first hunted in Sully County in 2003. He purchased a farm south of Highmore in part because of the sentimental value of his hunting trips.
“One of my most treasured pictures” shows his father standing in front of “with three pheasants and a raccoon, holding me” in about 1957, he said. “We’ve got hunting in our blood. … We enjoy it as a family activity, and we just don’t have those pheasant numbers (in Iowa) anymore.”
3 Friends brings crowds to Main Street—every once in a while
Three friends have figured out a way to make an unlikely business venture work on Main Street in Onida—by being open … occasionally.
“We call it an ‘occasional store,’ because we’re open occasionally,” said LeAnn Weischedel of Onida, who owns 3 Friends with Carrie Jo Howard of Minnesota and in honor of the late Barb “Beaba” Terca. “If this store was open five days a week—or even three days every week—it wouldn’t work.”
The three friends grew up together in nearby Blunt and remained close over the years. Terca died of multiple sclerosis in 2002, in the midst of discussion about opening the business.
“We kind of put everything on hold, but Carrie Jo and I decided to just still pursue it,” Weischedel said. “We’re still three friends.”
The gift and décor store—stocked with handmade, repurposed and otherwise “local” items—initially opened in December 2009, for Onida’s annual ’Twas the Night Before Christmas celebration.
“This building was empty for over 10 years. People on the outside had no idea what kind of a store we were having or anything, so as soon as the doors were open, people just piled in,” Weischedel said. “It was definitely a hellhole when we moved in. We need new windows and new siding … but it’s got all the character.”
The remodeled three-room beauty shop-turned-house is open a few weekends annually—coinciding with Mother’s Day, Sully County Fair, pheasant season opener, ’twas the Night Before Christmas—plus a few nights and weekends in December when Weischedel is available. Between openings, a full inventory overhaul happens. Separately, Weischedel and Howard craft and order unique items for their “occasional” shoppers, and together they restock the tiny shop ahead of each opening, timed just right for some of the biggest gift-giving seasons of the year.
“Every time someone comes in, it’s new. We completely move things around or out and bring new stuff in. It’s completely new every opening,” said Weischedel, who works full-time at a local bank. “It wouldn’t pay to have somebody keep it open. There just isn’t a lot of traffic on regular days.”
Being open only occasionally has drastically reduced 3 Friends’ overhead.
“We’re not open much in January and February, because it’s just too hard to keep it heated. When the heat is on, it’s spendy,” Weischedel said. “It just goes right out the windows.”
Despite warnings from others, going into business together has helped keep a decades-old friendship warm across distance and helped keep Terca alive for them both.
“We might disagree on how something is set up or something … but we’ve never really had a fight,” Weischedel said of working with Howard. And Terca’s memory is still with them. “It’s fun, and it would be ‘funner’ if she was here with us.”