FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — The fight over Costco's chicken processing operation — already approved by the city of Fremont and the state of Nebraska — is now moving to the county level.
In the next 18 months or so, between 100 and 125 farmers in a rural 14-county region of eastern Nebraska will go before their local county boards, seeking permits to build chicken barns on their land.
The typical farmer will request permission to build four barns, each housing 43,000 birds, although some flocks used in the operation will have a different arrangement, with more or fewer birds. The appearance of as many as 500 new poultry barns around the region will be a change in many of the counties, where cattle feedlots and hog barns are the most common sign of livestock agriculture.
Opponents vow to protest at every meeting, bringing their catalog of concerns about the project's potential impact on water quality, human health, animal welfare and road conditions.
But they admit a sense of inevitability about the project, in which the farmers would raise chickens for slaughter at a Costco processing plant under construction in Fremont.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that Dodge County Board members on Sept. 27 unanimously approved a permit for the first farmer to seek one, Colten Schafersman of Hooper, Nebraska, at a contentious meeting where supporters and opponents delivered about an hour of testimony.
The testimony revealed strategies both sides will use as they try to influence county boards in the coming months.
Opponents plan to attend and speak at every permit hearing, said Randy Ruppert, a Dodge County resident and organizer of the Nebraska Communities United group, which has opposed the project since it was announced in the spring of 2016.
Group members are dividing and conquering the list of counties to keep track of all the hearings on the calendar.
"We are going to keep reiterating that there are far better ways of raising chickens than the ways Costco is planning to do it," said Ruppert, who opposes large-scale industrial livestock operations. Among other concerns, he worries that water quality in Nebraska will go the way of Iowa, where high nitrate levels from fertilizer runoff pose problems for drinking water in cities including Des Moines.
"We're on the threshold of destroying our state with this type of program," he said.
Representatives of the Costco project also plan to attend many or all of the meetings, in support of the farmers.
Counties likely to see permit requests are: Burt, Butler, Cass, Colfax, Cuming, Dodge, Madison, Platte, Polk, Saunders, Seward, Stanton, Washington and Wayne. The farms are within a 60-mile drive of Fremont. There may also be interest from some counties in western Iowa, project representatives said, but there hasn't been much interest from the more urban Lancaster and Douglas Counties.
Representatives of Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company that will operate the plant, have been making presentations in advance to county boards to tell them about the project.
It's "in an effort to show them we want to be transparent, we want to be good partners and neighbors," said Jessica Kolterman, who handles community outreach for Lincoln Premium Poultry.
When the permit applications do come before the boards, farmers, too, will be prepared. Lincoln Premium Poultry is coaching farmers on how to answer the boards' likely questions, such as queries about odor, how the farmers will work with their neighbors and how they'll dispose of all the chicken manure. (Compost it and use it on farm fields as fertilizer.)
Lincoln Premium is also paying for a consultant, Nutrient Advisors of West Point, Nebraska, to work with each farmer to fill out paperwork showing that his or her site meets a set of state guidelines for locating a livestock feeding operation.
The guidelines — called the Livestock Siting Assessment Matrix — came out of a bill passed in the Nebraska Legislature in 2015, designed to make it easier for counties to evaluate and approve operations like cattle feedlots and chicken and hog barns.
Dodge County in March was the first county to voluntarily adopt the matrix, with board members saying it was a tool, but not a rubber stamp, to help with evaluating chicken barn requests.
Ruppert, the project opponent, doesn't see it that way. He said the matrix makes the permits inevitable.
"They're going to approve this permit because they've now put the matrix in position, which really takes away all responsibility from the county board of supervisors," he said before the Sept. 27 meeting. "They don't have to listen to the citizenry anymore."
Schafersman, the Hooper farmer, submitted plans for four barns housing a total of 60,000 birds. The plans scored 100 points on the matrix, above the 75 points needed to receive the county's approval.
Most of the points come from actions that a farmer would be taking anyway. An operation that follows the state's permit requirements and the county's zoning requirements gains 60 points on those qualifications alone. The farmer can earn extra points with plans to install landscaping, communicate with neighbors, live on the farm property and put a roof over buildings containing manure, among other things.
Lincoln Premium Poultry said the farmers it contracts with will be going above and beyond by applying to the state for construction and operating permits that the state does not require and that the farmers wouldn't need to do to score enough points on the matrix.
"What we're requiring our growers to do is to go through that process anyway, in an effort to provide that level of accountability," Kolterman said.
A Nebraska chicken operation is required to have a state permit as a large animal feeding operation only if it has the potential to discharge waste into state waters. That wouldn't happen if the barns are sited properly, according to a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Proper siting is a judgment determined by a state inspector.
Unless the operation is required to have a permit, it's also not required to file what's called a nutrient management plan, a document stating how the farmer will use the chickens' waste to avoid over-fertilizing and polluting water.
However, Lincoln Premium Poultry will require permits and nutrient management plans anyway. The plans will be written with help from the consultant, Nutrient Advisors. Schafersman's plan, on file with the environmental quality department, states, "All chicken litter removed from the (livestock waste control facility) will be land applied in a manner which will not contribute to water pollution."
The extra steps of getting a permit and filing a nutrient management plant don't satisfy critics of the project, seven of whom spoke against Schafersman's permit request.
Marianne Schuler, who lives near the plant south of Fremont, protested, saying the additional truck traffic needed to haul chickens and feed would burden the county's road repair budget.
Lon Strand, chairman of the board's roads committee, responded that he's confident the county can keep up.
"There are growing pains," Strand said. "Some added maintenance to those roads is just one of those growing pains."
Jim Jaksha of Fremont was worried about nitrates, found in runoff from manure applied as fertilizer.
"Why approve a risk that will jeopardize human health?" he said.
The board questioned Nutrient Advisors President Andy Scholting about whether he expects any increase in nitrate flow to nearby Maple Creek.
"I do not, one bit," Scholting said. He said fertilizer from chicken manure won't be applied to fields in any greater strength than a farmer would typically apply chemical fertilizer.
Others worried their property values would plunge, while proponents — farmers and project representatives — said they will manage the chicken barns responsibly.
When testimony ended, County Board Chairman Bob Missel said the board has been listening and studying.
"We've paid close attention to all sides of this issue," he said. With no further discussion, the board approved the permit.
"Congratulations, Colten," Missel told the farmer.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com