Longtime Wright County Supervisor Stan Watne is retiring
When he adjourns his final meeting, it will be with 25 1/2 years behind him
CLARION — Stan Watne served as chairman of the Wright County Board of Supervisors in the 1990s when the farming landscape of the county was about to undergo a transformation.
“The livestock industry was really changing and we had hearings packed in this room,” Watne said recently from the Supervisors’ conference room in the basement of the Wright County Courthouse. “There was a lot of emotion in here.”
There wasn’t a lot of breathing room in some of those meetings, either, Watne said.
“Those were difficult days,” he said. “I was chair in ’95 and we were so full, people would be sitting right in front of me.”
Watne announced his retirement to the board earlier this year. His last day will be Dec. 31.
Those meetings in the 1990s centered around chicken and egg laying facilities, hog production, and water quality.
“We had just come out of the farm crisis and we needed something to create jobs and get the population back and it has helped because there’s probably 1,000 jobs here related to the livestock industry,” Watne said.
Watne said he personally was the first one in the county that experienced an egg laying facility. He lives southeast of Clarion, near Galt.
“I guess I knew it wasn’t as bad as the opponents were saying,” he said. “If the wind was right you might have some odor for a while.”
According to Watne, some residents who were in opposition to the pork industry have since found value in it.
“It’s interesting because some of the biggest opponents to pork production at that time, they now have their own buildings,” Watne said. “I think a lot of them have been won over to raising hogs and it’s positive for their farm operation. That’s been an interesting thing over the last 15 to 20 years.”
Watne was again at the forefront of controversy when Prestage Foods of Iowa announced plans to locate its $300 million pork processing plant in Wright County, south of Eagle Grove.
He was one of three supervisors who voted to enter into a development agreement with Prestage in August of 2016.
“We didn’t have near the oppositon to Prestage that we did at the beginning of the livestock industry being built up here,” Watne said.
At the time of the announcement Watne said, “We thought it was a fit for Wright County because we do raise a lot of livestock. We are first in egg production and raise a lot of hogs. We thought it would be a good area.”
He added, “One of the things this facility will certainly help in all of our counties is population, where we have seen a decline in population. This could be something that brings people in. Brings young families in. We could turn around this constant decline.”
Prestage is set to open later this year.
Watne, a 1971 Clarion High School graduate, was appointed as a supervisor in June of 1993 after the passing of his friend, former supervisor, Gene Sturgeon.
“I had talked about running when he retired,” Watne said. “After he passed away, his widow encouraged me to apply for it and I did.”
He added, “Gene was a wonderful guy and a great supervisor. I still have some of his stuff on file because his work was that good. That was a great board that first one I was on. We really worked well together.”
Watne’s uncle, Conger Whyte, was also a Wright County supervisor for 26 years.
He said Whyte had an influence on him.
“I had heard his stories and heard what he was doing to give me a little insight and when the opportunity came up I thought it wold be a very interesting thing to try and do,” Watne said. “I had no idea of all the responsibilities until you actually get in there and see what you have to do.”
Watne said the cost to do business today is much pricier than in the 1990s.
“Everything is a lot more expensive now compared to then,” he said. “When we built buildings or bought machinery. In 25 years there was quite an increase in price list.”
Drainage is another costly venture.
“Drainage costs,” he said. “When we do drainage ditches or drainage tile, it’s very very expensive. When corn prices are lower it’s very difficult for people to be able to pay for those improvements, so that’s been more of a challenge.”
He has also observed the changing dynamics of families.
“I think in some ways people can be more demanding now,” he said. “Almost everyone in the country, ‘how soon will the roads be cleared out.’ Twenty-five or 30 years ago, farm wives didn’t work, and the whole family was home. Now there’s more obligations.”
He added, “We have 900 miles of gravel and 180 miles of blacktop hard surface and within 12 hours we want to have them all open.”
Watne said he is pleased with the improvements to some of the buildings in the county.
The Wright County Jail was revamped in 2001. The cost was about $1.7 million.
“I think the things that will last the longest are the buildings we have done,” he said. “Our new jail, what we had before was just a big room and there was no real security. Whoever was the toughest guy ran that jail. Now we have added control. When they go to jail we are responsible for their safety too.”
Work recently began at the Wright County Courthouse to remodel the courtroom. The improvements will cost about $600,000. Supervisors allocated about $450,000 to the project.
The renovations are aimed at amping up security for the 125-year-old building.
“One of the reasons we are doing the courtroom is for enchanced security,” Watne said. “When I came on that wasn’t an issue, but in the last few years we have had shootings in Iowa courthouses. This is a problem nationwide, but if we can make those enhancements, hopefully we can avoid that here.”
Maintenance sheds in Eagle Grove and Clarion have also been added.
“Some of the sheds we have done, they will be here for 50 years,” Watne said. “Every building we have done there has been some well meaning people against it, but once they see it up, they see that it was probably a good thing to do.”
Watne said he would like to combine some of the county’s organizations in the coming months.
“We are looking at combining some functions,” he said. “Putting Wright County Communications under Wright County Emergency Management — streamlining county government. Eliminate some meetings and put more things together. I would like to see us keep the same great team working together. I encourage them all the time. We are all on the same team. Sometimes different departments are going through a tough time. Just keep up being a great team for Wright County.”
Aside from serving on the board of supervisors, Watne is part of 13 other committees. He also chairs the Region V Hazardous Materials Reponse Team based out of Fort Dodge.
Working in county government has been an exceptional experience for Watne.
“It is the most interesting job I have ever had,” he said. “You work with law enforcement and jails to secondary roads and heavy equipment, mental health and all the businesses and offices here. The legal system — we work with the judges on security for that. You work with farmers, you work with drainage.”
“Trying to do the one thing to improve the quality of land more than any other is adequate drainage, that’s what has made Wright County one of the best agriculture counties in the state. Our producers are some of the most efficient in the world.”
He said the other officials he has worked with became family.
“I think you get to know people at work like your family,” he said. “There were times of happiness when children and grandchildren were born and times of sadness when they lost someone they love.”
Watne, who will turn 65 in April, said retiring will allow him to spend more time with family. He has been married for 38 years to his wife, Pam. Together they have raised two children, John and Audrey.
“I still have a lot of things I would like to do,” he said. “I want to spend more time with my family. I will still help on the family farm. I have two brothers there. I am looking forward to that.”
Watne farms on land near Galt and also by Eagle Grove, where his parents were from.
He credits his family for allowing him to serve the county.
“I’ve had really great family support to allow me to do it,” he said. “It would be really hard to have a regular job and do this. I feel very blessed for having to serve for 25 years and the way people supported me in elections. I feel good about what I have been able to do and wish all the potential candidates well to keep it going.”