Lake Byron Farmers & UFF

Brothers George and Bill Piper, who learned that 1,000 acres of their Beadle County family farm would be drowned beneath Byron Reservoir, an Oahe irrigation project feature, begin a concerted effort to learn more about the project, and they organized their neighbors into an informal group they called the Lake Byron Farmers. This group includes other farmers who would lose lands to the new reservoir. George Piper's intensive research about the project extends beyond the impacts of the Byron reservoir, and he concludes that the project will cause problems not only for their immediate area but for landowners in a vast region, including those living and working in many areas in the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district. As the Pipers shared their findings with others the Lake Byron Farmers group outgrows its neighborhood, becomes more visible, and Bill Piper re-names the group United Family Farmers, soon after known as UFF.

humble origins

George Piper began to meet regularly with farmers and ranchers throughout the Oahe project area to build an opposition movement. George Piper was a recent PhD recipient (he earned his PhD in Zoology from the University of Missouri), and he proves adept at interpreting Oahe engineering reports and the project’s environmental impact statement. His positions against Oahe soon include topics such as soil and water quality, land condemnation practices, wildlife, and economic issues. His efforts to educate fellow farmers and conservationists are productive, and UFF grows quickly.

Early United Family Farmer meetings were held in a modest one-room school near the Piper farm in Beadle County. Within several years membership in the organization reached 2,500, and annual meetings attracted almost 1,000 to energetic, festive events with guest speakers and extensive potluck meals. Members of Congress and Presidential advisors were among the guests who addressed large UFF gatherings.

George Piper

About Dr. George Piper

Dr. George Piper founded United Family Farmers. His research, information-sharing, and grassroots organizing was responsible for transforming the group into a formidable Oahe opponent. Piper earned a PhD in Zoology from the University of Missouri in 1968, taught college for one year, and returned to his family farm in Beadle County. There he started a dozen-year odyssey opposing the Oahe irrigation project.

UFF challenges EIS

Not only did Oahe opponents use information in the Environmental Impact Statement to validate their opposition, they used it to recruit allies and expand opposition. A lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the Oahe Environmental Impact Statement was pursued by project opponents, and although the lawsuit was unsuccessful, information uncovered by United Family Farmers and its attorneys during the case proved invaluable. It was discovered, for example, that the Bureau of Reclamation had previously determined that soils in the Oahe irrigation area could not withstand continual watering. This critical information became a compelling foundation of the opposition, for it revealed that if the irrigation project operated over many years it would likely destroy land, not improve it.

Oahe Opposition Validated

Oahe supporters were shocked when the respected Minneapolis Tribune newspaper published a major investigative article on July 22, 1973 that began with this headline: “Oahe project: Boon or boondoggle?” Suddenly, Oahe’s opposition had been given prominent stature in the discussion about whether the irrigation project represented worthwhile public policy and investment. No daily newspaper or any other major media outlet in South Dakota had undertaken a similar journalistic review. That circumstance reflected the widespread support for the project among South Dakota’s newspaper and media owners and their business allies, and their interest in minimizing opposition viewpoints. This article is another example of the rising influence of the emerging environmental movement, for it reveals that a major newspaper invested resources in hiring a reporter whose focus was on the environment, and this newspaper was willing to publish an article questioning the viability of a large development project in its readership region.