Ruth June has planted 120 black walnut trees on her farm in Lancaster County, Nebraska, and delights in the birds she’s seen migrating through.
“This is a nice quite neighborhood. Nice people. Everybody gets along,” she said.
It’s a tranquil scene she worries may soon be disturbed due to a different type of bird: Chickens, nearly 200,000 of them, that could be housed in four 600 foot-long barns half a mile from her house.
“Now, we’re going to be shut up in our houses because we can’t stand the smell outside?” she said.
The chickens would be grown to supply the Costco processing plant being built in Fremont, about 75 miles away. It’s scheduled to start running next year and eventually process more than 2 million birds a week.
An intermediary, Lincoln Premium Poultry, is pushing for 125 chicken-growing operations in 14 Nebraska counties, as well as five to six counties in Iowa. So far, Nebraska counties have approved about 40 applications from people to grow chickens for Lincoln Premium Poultry and its owner, Costco.
But in some places, potential chicken-barn neighbors are fighting back. One county board is being sued for approving a 380,000-chicken operation, and two proposals for chicken operations were withdrawn in a county that approved five others.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission must approve the barns near June, which could happen as early as Aug. 1.
Randy Essink bought the property near June’s house and would run one of the chicken barns, something he’s never done before. He said his fiancée and 18-month old son will live there, too.
“Anything that would be detrimental health-wise to me or my son or my fiancée I would never do anything like that – or my neighbors for that matter,” he said.
But his neighbors aren’t so sure. At a more than five-hour hearing on July 18, some of them poured out their objections to what some called more of an industrial facility than a farm.
“The traditional farmer recognizes the importance of protecting the natural environment and acts as stewards of the land. Industrial facilities contribute to numerous issues, such as damage to our air, water and soil,” Marianne Tesar said.
Lincoln Premium Poultry’s chief operating officer, Walt Shafer, pushed back, saying the company will use the latest technology and make sure its growers protect the environment.
“You’re just not going to have the smell. You’re not going to have the dust plumes that you may have heard about. You’re not going to have the issues. If we have a bad actor, you’re not going to have to enforce it. I’ll enforce it,” he said.
And company spokeswoman Jessica Kolterman thinks there’s more concern about things like odors in rural areas that are nearer to cities, where people who aren’t familiar with agriculture have moved to rural acreages.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you you’re never going to have a smell ever in the course of this operation. It’s a farm. If you live in the country, you do have smell from time to time, whether it’s cattle, whether it’s hogs, whether it’s grain as part of the harvest. That’s just the nature of agriculture,” she said.
Eight years ago, Curt McConnell built a house that’s less than half a mile from where the Lancaster County barns would be built. He said he’s not opposed to agriculture.
“We have two dozen cows just across the road that my neighbor grazes. I’m fine. They were here before I was here, and I’m fine with natural farming practices.” he said.
But he pointed to a study in the Winter 2015 issue of the Appraisal Journal that found concentrated animal feeding operations, like chicken barns, can substantially lower surrounding property values.
“If Costco wants to come out and drive down our property values and ruin our way of life, show me the money,” he said.
Lincoln Poultry is trying to minimize any harm, Kolterman said.
“What we’re trying to do is put as many practices in place to mitigate as much of it as possible,” she said. “And Randy (Essink), like all our other growers, are going to do their best to be good neighbors and good stewards of the land.”
But project opponent Ken Tesar still urged caution.
“You know, I try to keep an open mind. I just know that sometimes it’s better to stop a problem before it happens than to try to clean it up,” he said.
If the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission ends up approving the barns, there’ll be a possible appeal. But no matter what, it’s a conflict that may be repeated elsewhere as the Costco project moves ahead.
Fred Knapp is a reporter with NET News in Lincoln, Nebraska. Follow him on Twitter: @fredmknapp