NSU Native student group hosts poultry farm roundtable

05/01/2019 08:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Terrel Mitchell, of Tahlequah, makes a point regarding factory chicken operations during a roundtable discussion on April 9 at Northeastern State University. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – A diverse group of Oklahomans concerned about industrial chicken farms turned out for a roundtable discussion hosted by Native American support groups at Northeastern State University.

“I think it went really well,” Brian Barlow, of NSU’s Native American Support Center, said. “I didn’t want to bias the conversation on the front end, so I didn’t invite anyone in particular. I just put the invitation out. We had some powerful voices come to the table without a special invitation.”

The April 9 discussion, which attracted more than a dozen concerned individuals, was orchestrated by the NASC in collaboration with NSU’s American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

“I’m here just as a concerned citizen wanting to know more about what’s actually going on and what we can do about it,” Katie Easter, 30, of Tahlequah, said.

The public was invited to “become part of the larger conversation” about construction and operation of what some called “massive” or “mega” chicken farms that pepper rural Oklahoma.

“This problem is not just a Cherokee Nation problem,” CN citizen Mark Bolin, 37, said. “It’s an everybody problem. It affects everybody, all those ranchers, all those farms. The way I see it, you’ve got a lot of big corporate interests owned by foreign companies and all kinds of things, coming in here, and they’re basically making a wasteland of our land.”

Barlow, an academic intervention specialist, said he was inspired by Green Country Guardians, a grassroots group that formed to counter the growing number of factory poultry operations the likes of which can be seen along U.S. 412, which runs east and west through Rogers, Mayes and Delaware counties in the CN.

“As soon as I started seeing that it was proliferating our border, I got with students and asked if they would help me with this,” Barlow said. “The students overwhelmingly said yeah, this is an important conversation.”

Terrel Mitchell, a CN environmental specialist, said the pressure to build additional industrial poultry operations comes from Arkansas.

“They’re out of space,” he said. “They’ve overloaded their watershed. They want to come over and use ours.”

Charles Gourd, Cherokee Heritage Center executive director and former Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission director, described the issue as “something that has to be addressed, not only for the present, but the future.”

“We’re all downhill from somewhere,” Gourd said, “and we have to protect the water.”

In February, the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture approved proposals that require new or expanding poultry operations to be a certain distance away from homes and schools.

New 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.

The roundtable discussion, Barlow said, was an attempt to create “a space for people to share their concerns, to engage in dialogue and potentially find partnerships.”

“When we’re all working on our own, it’s hard to get anything done,” he said.

Further conversations surrounding chicken factories may feature alternative formats.

“Now I think we’re identifying these stakeholders, and they’re seeing each other,” Barlow said. “I hope in future conversations, you know, it snowballs. I can see panels and different ways of doing it in the future. We need the public to know what’s going on.”
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