Politics & Government

What happens if a Tyson chicken house is built near you?

The long, narrow chicken houses look non-descript on the outside. Inside, thousands of chickens cluck softly in dim light as large ventilation fans keep air moving through the building.

It’s what might be outside that has some residents of Sedgwick County worried.

Dozens of such buildings could dot parts of the county if Tyson builds a $320 million chicken plant here, one of three locations under consideration in Kansas. The company would contract with upwards of 70 farmers, and some residents have voiced concerns about traffic and odor.

A lot is still unknown about how that process of recruiting farmers and building chicken houses would play out for everyone.

"We’re a cattle and a wheat state, we’re not a poultry state – so there was a learning curve that was pretty steep for all of us within agriculture in Kansas," said Mike Matson, Kansas Farm Bureau director of industry affairs and development.

But some parts are coming into sharper focus.

Neighbors who are worried about how chicken houses might affect them have some protections: In most cases, farmers who want to contract with Tyson would have to give public notice and allow public comment. Regulations put some restrictions on how close the chicken houses can be to other buildings.

Farmers would have to go through a permitting process under the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. And large operations may have to go through additional federal regulations.

Farmers housing 37,500 chickens or more would be required to register with the state under regulations that use a formula to determine a site’s "animal unit capacity." A single chicken house can keep more than 40,000 chickens, and many farmers have multiple houses on one site.

Under Kansas law, the chicken houses must be 1,320 feet from homes, schools, churches, medical or child care facilities and other public buildings. If the site holds more than 125,000 chickens, it must be at least 4,000 feet away.

Still, some odor is inevitable, one contract farmer says.

"It is animal agriculture and there is going to be an odor," said David Luebbering, a farmer who grows chickens for Tyson in southwest Missouri.

"There’s no escaping that. But we live in the country, right? And we’ve all got to eat and everybody wants cheap protein. There’s a little something that goes along with that."

Kippie Block, who lives about five miles south of Wichita, said the smell of the chicken houses as well as the truck traffic are concerns. She said she had an uncle who once worked as an inspector at a chicken plant.

"The feathers that accumulate on the roadways, ditches and blow into people’s yards are surprising,” Block said of the trucks that take chickens to and from the plant.

The farmer seeking the permit must provide the Kansas Department of Health and Environment the names of all owners of habitable structures within one mile of the proposed facility. The farmer also must provide a map containing all the habitable structures within a mile of the proposed facility and a map that identifies all water wells, streams and bodies of water.

Public notice must be given of the proposed permit and at least 30 days must be allowed for public comment. Anyone can request a public hearing during the public comment period if a hearing hasn’t been scheduled.

At the county level, existing farms are already zoned agricultural, so no zoning change would be needed to construct a chicken house. Building permits are required for structures larger than 400 square feet, said Kate Flavin, county spokeswoman.

Large operations may also have to go through an additional federal permitting process. Under federal regulations, a site that houses more than 125,000 chickens is a large concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

Like the state regulations, federal regulations also require an opportunity for public notice and public comment.

Having a CAFO also means having a plan to handle chicken manure, called a nutrient management plan. The document spells out how the manure is stored and used. It often is spread across crop land or sold to others.

Luebbering has more than half a dozen houses that combined hold 240,000 chickens, making his operation a CAFO. But he said the designation isn’t burdensome.

"As long as I do what I’m supposed to do, that’s not an issue," Luebbering said. "It’s just like anything else: If you take care of your end of things, it’s not a big deal."

Luebbering was hesitant to discuss how much he earns, but he said his operation produces about $2.70 a year per square foot in gross earnings.

Matson said any "smart business person" would have an interest in opportunities to improve their bottom line.

"This clearly fits in that category," Matson said of the possibility of contracting with Tyson.

He indicated the contract growing model Tyson uses for chicken bears some resemblance to how wind energy companies sought to place turbines in Kansas.

"They had a similar sort of model in the sense that they needed land on which to site their turbine," Matson said.

At that time, the Farm Bureau helped walk members through contracts and had lawyers on staff who understood the contracts. He said the organization envisions playing a similar role today if Tyson locates in Kansas.

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