Oklahoma Residents Fight 'Poultry House Proliferation'

Expanding poultry operations in northeast Oklahoma has residents concerned about the environment and their quality of life. ( . )

Expansion of poultry farms has stirred controversy in northeastern Oklahoma, with residents calling on state officials to create emergency rules and set limits on required space between the farms and residences, schools and city limits.

On Tuesday the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry considered proposed limits, but instead decided to “punt it” to the state legislature.

The proposed rules on new or expanding poultry farms would have created a quarter-mile setback from an occupied residence, half-mile from a public school or city limits, and 150 feet from public highways or property lines.

“I am disappointed we were unable to arrive at a consensus,” Oklahoma Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese told the Tulsa World. “It is a very important, yet highly contentious issue that we worked very hard to address. At the same time, we are happy to punt it to the legislature.”

The issue has become contentious in recent months as new or expanded poultry feeding operations have seen a dramatic rise in northeastern Oklahoma, especially in Delaware County. Most of the new construction is connected to Simmons Foods, which is building an expanded processing facility in nearby Benton County, Ark.

In September of 2017, Simmons announced plans to build a new chicken facility between Decatur and Gentry, AR, with an investment of $300 million that will create approximately 1,500 jobs. Operations are expected to begin in 2019.

Construction of the poultry “mega-houses” in Oklahoma, however, has drawn criticism from Green Country Guardians, a group organized to fight the growth of poultry operations in the area. Mike Shambaugh, a Cherokee Nation councilor, told the Tulsa World the poultry expansion was occurring in Oklahoma because of regulations in Arkansas.  

“Basically, Arkansas saw this coming and they had rules in place to better control it,” Shambaugh said. “We didn’t see it coming for whatever reason and Oklahoma really doesn’t have that many regulations in place, so that’s where we are.”

Multiple poultry feeding units are under construction in Delaware and Ottawa counites that are typically 66-foot-by-600-foot buildings that hold 20,000 to 30,000 birds each. The houses must have a $10 permit that only requires basic information about location and a required construction-phase water management plan.

Both the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association have voiced concerns. In a letter from the Farm Bureau, Director of Regulatory Affairs Marla Peek wrote that “emergency rules drafted without initial and considerable industry and stakeholder input are likely to have unintended consequences and be unsatisfactory to all parties.”

OFB also noted it wants to work with poultry growers and others in the upcoming legislative session to determine “what constitutes appropriate setbacks for poultry operations, so that poultry growers and their neighbors can enjoy use of their property.”

Following Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Agriculture, attorney David Page told the Tulsa World he represents a group of residents who plan on filing a lawsuit to ensure the agency properly uses its authority to better regulate “poultry house proliferation.”

He said he believes the Board of Agriculture has the statutory authority today to do the things necessary to “protect the water quality, air quality and the lives of the people of northeast Oklahoma.”