Landowner says poultry farm rules not enough
A poultry operation is seen Feb. 20 in Rose. On Feb. 19, the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture approved proposals that require new or expanding poultry operations to be a certain distance away from homes and schools. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Regulations are in the works to govern Oklahoma poultry operations similar to these seen in western Washington County, Arkansas. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TERESITA – A landowner who rallied residents against expanding poultry farms in Oklahoma considers new regulations “a bit of a win,” but is bracing for a long-term struggle.
“Am I glad there are setbacks? Yes,” Cherokee Nation citizen Pam Kingfisher said. “Thank you. We have something. Are they adequate? No. They will not protect our water. We had hoped for the stronger setbacks.”
On Feb. 19, the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture approved proposals requiring new or expanding poultry operations to be certain distances away from homes and schools.
New poultry operations with fewer than 150,000 birds will be 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.
“Thank God they added schools,” Kingfisher said. “There’s a few things in there we were able to get in. The first setbacks didn’t include schools or churches. They didn’t define anything. So we know we’ve made a lot of progress with our comments.”
The proposal moves to the Legislature and, if approved and signed by the governor, would take effect in September. The regulations call for operations to be 200 feet from streams, 100 feet from private wells and 500 feet from public wells.
“If you can put six barns with 190,000 chickens a year 200 feet from an intermittent spring – which I live on – that’s not going to protect anybody,” Kingfisher said. “But I have to consider it a bit of a win. We have some setbacks now where there were none.”
The 68-year-old lives on her grandmother’s allotment land in Cherokee County near the Delaware County line. “I have the deeds in her name as an 8-year-old girl. I’m not going anywhere. I will fight to the death.”
CN Natural Resources Secretary Sara Hill said she keeps in touch with state legislators and officials regarding “chicken issues” in eastern Oklahoma. Prior to the Feb. 19 agriculture board’s vote, Hill said she “submitted another written comment from Cherokee Nation expressing our desire that we have setbacks in place.”
“It would still be a 100-percent increase in the amount of setback, which is zero,” she said.
Hill said the chicken issue “has been a decades-long fight for eastern Oklahoma.”
“That’s not going to change or go away any time in the near future,” she added. “But if we can make improvements in that, I think that we’re going in the right direction.”
Kingfisher organized the Green Country Guardians to combat poultry operations the likes of which can be seen along U.S. 412.
“I’m not against farming,” she said. “We’ve lived with chicken houses forever. They’re off the road, they’re smaller. They’re not these industry complexes. These things are massive.”
She said it was “incredible” how the community rallied to the cause.
“We’ve had a lot of wins,” she said. “In October, we got a suspension on all new poultry farms. It’s still on until May 31 – that’s the other next battle. In October, we got the governor’s poultry council appointed and six of our local people on it. So we won every battle we showed up to.”
Upon learning of plans for six chicken houses last May, residents and the CN intervened.
“The Cherokee Nation bought the land from the chicken farmers and pulled it out of the conversation,” Kingfisher said.
In what was its lone land purchase in 2018, the tribe bought 60.81 acres from Tran Tran LLC near the Oaks Indian Mission in Delaware County. There is a historical association between the tribe and those lands because it was an arrival point for those who survived the Trail of Tears.
Green Country Guardians have pushed for poultry regulations via public comments and meetings.
“I didn’t know half of these people six months ago,” Kingfisher said. “I have a background in organizing, so I understood immediately how to go about that part. People were so affected and upset, they all showed up. The community drove the bus. I’d invite (Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry) and water resources. They all came and spoke to us. They all got yelled at, but in a nice way. It was like, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Anticipating future wrangles, Kingfisher is urging lawmakers to support a proposal broadening setback requirements for new or expanding poultry feeding operations.
House Bill 2534 authored by Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, modifies certain setbacks, establishes others and requires pre-site inspections.
“We really want our House bill to be heard,” Kingfisher said. “(Blancett has) worked with us to really put forth a bill the industry could live with and still make money, and that citizens could live with and feel that our health and our environment is halfway protected.”
Kingfisher is concerned the proposal will be scrapped.
“We were told all last year the only way for us to do anything is to work with the legislators,” she said. “They need to allow us citizens to have that democratic process with our legislators to put forth a bill we believe in. I would be very disappointed if they circumvent the process for citizens to participate by dropping our bill and not hearing HB2534.”
While uncertainty looms around HB 2534, Kingfisher is certain the fight is unfinished.
“We know there’s more coming. They’re not done with us yet.”