Hog farm

Emily Dalnodar

New Prairie Township community members are squealing on a top official in the University’s Swine Center for what they call conflict of interest.
They accuse Robert Morrison, University professor and director of the center, of not disclosing to the University his connection to a hog farm, of which he is part owner, before getting funding for hog research.
University officials already investigated the matter and cleared Morrison of any charges. Morrison also has declared his innocence. But in the last week, township members discovered another connection that’s got them rolling in the mud.
The problem began when Morrison’s farm, Canadian Connection, became involved in a lawsuit against New Prairie Township over farm expansion.
Nancy Barsness, zoning commissioner and township clerk, said she is concerned that Morrison’s connections have been interfering with the lawsuit.
Local residents don’t want a large hog operation next door to their homes, she said. They say the smell created from pig waste makes it hard to live next to and difficult to sell their property.
When New Prairie Township officials rewrote their zoning ordinance in 1995, they blocked the hog farm from building a new hog feedlot.
Before the changes, Canadian Connection had already received permission from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to go ahead with the expansion.
The issue has gone to court twice and both times the judge ruled in favor of the township. The case is now waiting to go to an appeals court. The next hearing is scheduled for April 29.
Citizens say the problem is that Morrison is the giant who is adding fuel to the other side through his various connections to hog producers and organizations.
Part of this third attempt to take the issue to court is being funded by the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. They put up $8,000 to help Canadian Connection with the appeal.
Morrison, though not financially involved with the association, sits on their newsletter’s editorial committee and has “professional” relations with them.
Morrison insists he is not part of the lawsuit even though he owns 10 percent of the farm.
“It’s like the University being sued for some act. I am not being sued even though I work for the University, but when it gets sued it affects me, nonetheless,” Morrison said.
But Barsness said she believes that Morrison’s connections are what prompted the Minnesota Pork Producers Association to contribute to the case.
“It has nothing to do with Robert Morrison,” said Dave Preisler, executive director of the association. “The persons who made the decision to deal with the case are not the people who deal with Robert Morrison in any other capacity.”
Barsness also questions why Morrison did not disclose his financial interest in his farm when he applied for funding to conduct hog research.
“I am concerned as a taxpayer whose tax dollars go to fund factory farm research that may continue to be skewed toward more hog concentration,” Barsness wrote in a letter to University officials.
The current process for requesting research money requires filing out what is called a BA23 form.
In the form’s conflict of interest section, one question reads, “Do any personnel associated with this proposed research application have an interest in a company which may be affected by the research proposed?”
Morrison answered “no” to this question on all forms he filled out.
Barsness, a 1985 graduate of the University’s Morris campus, argues that being part owner of a hog farm is enough of a possible conflict of interest. She says his involvement should’ve been disclosed on the forms.
“If his research doesn’t benefit Canadian Connection, what does it benefit? It must be a waste of money then,” Barsness said.
Morrison, described as an excellent employee by University officials, said it never occurred to him that his farm involvement would be considered a conflict of interest.
“There’s no way our farm has any advantage over any other farm on research conducted here at the University,” Morrison said. As one of about 11,000 farms in Minnesota, he said he hopes his research will benefit his farm as well as all farms.
Barsness made the University aware of the connections, which spawned an investigation into the matter.
On Feb. 23, a memorandum was released stating that under the current Board of Regents’ policy, “Dr. Morrison had no obligation to disclose his financial interest in Canadian Connection to the University.”
The policy states that a conflict of interest happens “when an academic employee compromises professional judgment” in carrying out duties related to his job. In the investigation, officials determined this was not the case.
Mark Brenner, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, conducted most of the investigation. In a letter to Barsness, Brenner said, “Please know that I can agree that possibly (Morrison) should have disclosed, but there were no requirements by University policy to do so.”
Brenner is out of town and unavailable for comment.
In the meantime, University policies are being re-evaluated to avoid such problems in the future.
Under the current system, only administrators are required to fill out financial asset forms. They have to disclose to the University everything they own. The policy does not apply to anybody else.
Officials say this is on a trust system. Employees decide for themselves what might be a conflict of interest. If they don’t think something is questionable, they don’t have to disclose it, said Michael Martin, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.
“I am not hiding it. It’s true I’m part owner of the family farm. It’s true we are having problems with the township,” Morrison said.
Morrison said his experiences on the farm have helped him enormously in the classroom and in learning more about his field.
Since the investigation, however, Barsness has discovered another connection. Morrison is one of six “governors” of Nelson’s Minnesota Farms, which is connected to the Pipestone System — an alliance managed by veterinarians from Pipestone County that manages and coordinates sows for producers.
Nelson’s is a meat plant that purchases boxed meat and cuts it into porkchops, pork loins and other pork products.
Morrison said he tries to know everything about the pork industry to bring the most knowledge to his students, and that the University encourages outside involvements.
University officials were surprised to learn of this new connection and said they would look into it, but could offer no comment until they have more information.
“We did a very careful investigation the first time,” said Chris Roberts of the Academic Health Center, who helped conduct the investigation. “We do not throw allegations around lightly.”
Martin said this seems to be a case where the research Morrison does covers the entire industry.
“If you do pharmaceutical research and you also take (medication), would that be conflict of interest?” Martin said.