Program aims to bridge gap between poultry growers, neighbors
Poultry operations, seen Aug. 21 in southern Delaware County, dot the landscape near U.S. 412. A program facilitated by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission aims to mend fences between poultry growers and neighbors affected by chicken farms. JOSH FOURKILLER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
OKLAHOMA CITY – A fledgling program facilitated by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission is hoped to help mend fences between poultry growers and neighbors affected by what some call “mega” chicken farms that now pepper rural northeast Oklahoma.
Described as a conservation partnership, the new Neighbors Helping Neighbors program will bring parties together to deal with concerns on a local basis, said Trey Lam, executive director of the non-regulatory agency.
“It’s just addressing challenges through a voluntary program,” he said Aug. 12 during a state Agriculture and Rural Development Committee meeting in Oklahoma City. “This is dealing with poultry farms and their immediate neighbors. Our goal is to reduce the anger, the volume, the anxiety, to bring those people together around a table like this. We need to get these farmers and their neighbors that are upset across the table from each other.”
Prodded by citizens concerned over the spate of operations in Oklahoma, state lawmakers are delving into impacts of the poultry industry. When operators and neighbors meet, Lam said, regulating authorities would also be on hand.
“We want to bring neighbors and poultry growers together to identify problems and implement solutions that reduce impacts of facilities on the local community,” he added. “We can discuss the problem, let the local people make those decisions and come out with measurable solutions.”
Tulsa resident Grant Hall, who owns property in southern Delaware County, said most of the larger poultry operations have popped up over the past several years.
“As these houses came in, I was like every other landowner out there,” Hall said. “We thought it’s happening, there’s nothing you can do about it, this is just the way it is.”
The influx of poultry operations eventually spurred landowners and others into “a lengthy process of people talking to one another,” Hall said, adding that some families could see upwards of 50 “mega houses” from their front porches and deal with issues that include odors and dust.
In the wake of the growing concerns over poultry operations in 2019, the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture established setbacks for new or expanding operations.
Poultry operations with fewer than 150,000 birds are required to be at least 500 feet from homes. Larger operations must be at least 1,000 feet away. All operations must be at least 1,500 feet from schools. The regulations also call for all poultry operations to be 200 feet from streams, 100 feet from private wells and 500 feet from public wells.
Neighbors said the regulations were a start, but stricter setbacks are needed. Additional regulations were outlined in House Bill 2534, sponsored by Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa.
“The setbacks that are in place now were arbitrary,” said Hall, a member of Green Country Guardians, a grassroots organization of concerned citizens. “They were put together without much input. But what Rep. Blancett has sponsored … would be a step in the right direction to limiting concentration of the next wave of poultry houses that may be coming, or whatever the next industrial operation is that may be coming to northeast Oklahoma.”
HB 2534 slipped through the cracks in 2019 without discussion.
“We hope that either 2534 has another chance in the next legislative session or the legislature can come to a way that citizens of northeast Oklahoma who are buried in poultry houses have their voices heard,” Hall said. “What we see is a process that to the citizens is broken. It doesn’t work. The citizens are not involved.”
Teena Gunter, general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry, argued there was, in fact, “a lot of input” on the approved setbacks.
“It went through the normal rule-making process, which required us to send out notice to anybody that was interested in it,” she said. “We had a lot of comments for and against these setbacks. Ultimately, based on comments, we made one or two revisions to them.”
Under state guidelines, a feeding operation is defined as having poultry confined and fed for 45 days or more, and producing 10 tons of waste a year.
Gunter noted there are three state statutes that govern poultry feeding operations and litter application. One is the Oklahoma Registered Poultry Feeding Operations Act of 1998.
“At that time, there was no regulation generally on poultry operations,” Gunter said. “So this new law created a circumstance where every poultry operation had to be registered by Jan. 1 of 1999. Primarily we were worried about the land application. It’s only been in recent years that we’re also concerned about the siting of those facilities.”
The number of registered poultry feeding operations, 900 at the time, has declined by 300, Gunter said.
“We haven’t really lost poultry,” she added. “We’ve lost growers. What we’re seeing is facilities getting larger, and the number of growers growing smaller.”
Property owners say the 20-year-old regulations were woefully outdated with few restrictions, which led to the “construction explosion” of large poultry operations.
“At the peak of this construction explosion, there were no setback requirements for the mega houses,” Hall said. “The only limitations were brought by the well-permitting process, which only specified how close you could be to other wells. We have people whose front porches are 800 feet from the blowers of poultry houses as a result of this.”
Pointing to a minimal permitting procedure and fee, Hall said there has been “great change in the industry and the size of those poultry houses since 1999, yet the process has not changed.”
According to Green Country Guardians, 13 of 19 landowners responsible for building the Delaware County operations are out-of-state residents or absentee landowners with multiple farm locations.
In a move to protect historically significant land, in 2018 the Cherokee Nation purchased 60.81 acres near the Oaks Indian Mission in Delaware County from Tran Tran LLC, which had plans for a poultry operation.
There is a historical tie between the tribe and lands along Spring Creek because the area is acknowledged as one of the points of arrival for those who survived the Trail of Tears.