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There's been a surge of poultry house construction in northeastern Oklahoma, with some of the chicken operations owned by residents and others owned by Arkansas-based growers expanding their farms.

In the past year, growers have signed up to add more than 200 chicken houses to their operations in Oklahoma. Several are already under construction. Records show 25 farms belong to Oklahoma residents, but 15 farms list Arkansas billing addresses.

According to documents filed with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and Forestry that date to Aug. 27, 2017, there are 44 farms seeking new permits to raise chickens in the state. About 75 percent of the new or expanding poultry feeding operations listed, or 160 chicken houses, are contracted to supply Arkansas-based chicken producer Simmons Foods.

Sources familiar with the growth say it's largely for a new Simmons chicken plant going up in rural Benton County, less than 10 miles from the Oklahoma border.

Multiple poultry growers who used Arkansas billing addresses for their farms in Oklahoma did not respond to phone calls or declined to comment for this story.

A grower who requested anonymity, and cautioned that he couldn't speak on behalf of Simmons, said one of the reasons he settled in Oklahoma and recently requested permits to expand his farm was because of cheaper land prices.

"As a grower, we gamble," he said.

Contract poultry growers deal in a high risk, low margin business, and mortgage payments, water, gas and electric bills eat into their profits, he said. Any factor that can open up cash flow is an incentive, and Arkansas farmland prices are "crazy, way too high," he said.

A 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture land value survey shows farm real estate averages $3,250 per acre in Arkansas, or 38 percent more than Oklahoma's $2,000 per acre. Acreage values rose 2.2 percent in Arkansas from 2017 and 5.3 percent in Oklahoma for the same period. Meanwhile, Missouri's farmland averages climbed to $3,700 per acre this year, a roughly 10 percent jump from $3,350 a year ago.

The land value differences stem from general population growth, said Travis Justice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

The new Simmons processing plant is being built as more people move to Northwest Arkansas to be in proximity to the Walmart and Tyson Foods headquarters. The population growth has spurred housing and apartment developments in recent years and raised real estate prices in Benton and Washington counties, two of the state's leading agricultural counties.

"You've got a lot of urban sprawl, urban pressure," Justice said. "I'm sure that's ... driving properties up. That would be a significant incentive, if you have to buy land to start an operation."

Poultry companies often require contract chicken growers to have a land buffer around each house and enough room for haulers to load and unload flocks. The anonymous grower said Simmons Foods requires a 60-acre plot for six chicken houses.

Along with land requirements, Claude Bess, southeast district director of the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, said the growers must be relatively close to other production facilities.

"These buildings have to be located within a certain radius of the feed mill," Bess said. "Once you get more than 50-60 miles [out], it's not cost-effective to haul feed, therefore they have to look west and that puts them in Oklahoma."

As growers add and swap their old houses for new, larger ones, Oklahoma residents are beginning to worry about the effect more houses will have on their land, air and water quality. The Tulsa World first reported this summer about a public backlash to the Simmons Foods' expansion.

"People are really alarmed about the impact on wells at their property, about the smells, traffic and damage to the county roads," said Ed Brocksmith, co-founder of the Save the Illinois River nonprofit. "In general, their quality of life."

Brocksmith has attended a few public meetings in Oklahoma organized by Spring Creek Guardians and Spring Creek Coalition. Both are Facebook groups opposed to the expanding chicken operations. Spring Creek is 34 miles long and flows southwest from Delaware County, Okla., through Cherokee and Mayes counties. Records show most of the poultry house growth is in this area.

After living in Arkansas, the unnamed grower established his poultry operation in Delaware County in 2009. Public records show in the past year he's been approved to add 12 more houses to his land. Grow-out barns average 500 feet by 50 feet and can hold up to 30,000 birds.

"Right now, I've heard a lot of people complain about the chicken houses," the grower said. "And to me they're misunderstood. These houses, they're tight."

In recent years, technological improvements have been made to commercial poultry houses with improved ventilation, and marketed as giving birds a more comfortable living environment. The grower said concrete slabs surround each house, and Simmons safety inspectors that "come by are very happy" with his current operations, from the birds to the litter.

An upside for Oklahoma growers is they are allowed to throw dead birds into pits and bury them, a disposal practice discouraged in Arkansas for environmental reasons.

"Burial has been the preferred option and then incineration," said Bess, of the cooperative extension service, which offers poultry-waste management resources for Oklahoma growers. "What we're promoting now is composting, which is more labor intensive."

The grower said he composts his dead birds in bins because it is cheaper than incineration. While some properly dispose of their dead birds, there have been reports of improper composting practices in Arkansas.

Simmons' grower base is spread throughout the Ozarks. About 40 percent is in Oklahoma, another 40 percent is in Arkansas, and 20 percent is in Missouri, according to Simmons. After receiving approval for construction from county officials, Simmons held a site-dedication ceremony for its new processing plant in June. It is scheduled to begin operation by 2019.

At full capacity, the 315,000-square-foot plant will be able to process about 850 million pounds of chicken annually, according to a news release.

"There's not a big conspiracy here," Justice said, referencing the poultry resurgence in Oklahoma.

"It's just the way it happens."

SundayMonday Business on 09/02/2018

Print Headline: Northwest Arkansas poultry farmers take root in Oklahoma

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