Jack Wilkinson has a 600-acre farm in Lone Jack, Missouri, a town of about 1,000. It’s a centennial farm, in his family since the 1800s, but in the last few months, Wilkinson has started to worry about its longevity.
His land borders Valley Oaks Steak Company, a family-owned cattle feedlot and meatpacking business that started production at its Lone Jack location in 2016 and wants to expand to 6,999 head of cattle — one cow shy of needing to submit an air-quality monitoring plan to the state of Missouri.
Wilkinson says the smell from the existing plant is an issue for him, and is the reason it’s hard from him to imagine sticking around.
He was among the hundreds at Warrensburg Community Center on Tuesday night, the crowd spilling out of a meeting room and filling the hallway and gymnasium for a public hearing. There were opponents and supporters of the proposed expansion, which also is a few miles west of Kansas City’s closest botanical garden, Powell Gardens.
Valley Oaks, which says on its website it sells locally grown beef at locations in and around Kansas City, declined to comment ahead of the public hearing. However, it has supporters in the Missouri Cattleman’s Association.
“Valley Oaks is doing what every family farm tries to do. Expand,” MCA Region 5 vice president Bruce Mershon said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “Powell Gardens is hiring high-priced attorneys and lobbyists and they’re trying to bully this project down and beat it up … We’re not going to be bullied by them. Support local business.”
The opposition to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, isn’t unprecedented in the region. Last year, residents of Tonganoxie, Kansas, successfully stopped Tyson from building a chicken processing plant in their area — a move that led the Kansas Legislature to pass a bill meant to encourage meat companies to come to the state.
In December, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources decided against imposing air-quality regulations on all CAFOs regardless of size, claiming smaller CAFOs already face other requirements. And the federal government recently said a proposed rule won’t take effect; it would have required cattle CAFOs larger than 1,000 head to report air-quality statistics.
More than 800 people sent letters to the state DNR to call for the public hearing, arguing an expansion will lead to poor water and air quality in the area.
According to Valley Oaks’ expansion plan, which it submitted to the state as part of a water permit request, the increased number of animals will produce an estimated 3.9 million cubic feet of manure (bedding, feces and urine).
Powell Gardens CEO Tabitha Schmidt believes that would threaten the air quality for those who visit the 970-acre park.
Platte County lobbyist Woody Cozad says he was contacted by a friend at Powell Gardens to take a look at the permit. He says he represented a CAFO in northeast Missouri for 20 years — it had 17,000 acres, 8,000 of which were dedicated to manure. When he saw the Valley Oaks permit for expansion, which will put the whole operation on just 400 acres of land, he was shocked.
“I didn’t imagine such a thing would ever happen,” Cozad says.
Wilkinson found out about Valley Oaks’ plans to expand when he received a notice from water-permitting company Terra Technologies on Feb. 1, but he already had concerns over the odor.
“They only had like a 500-head operation here, and it was already pretty noticeable at that time,” Wilkinson says.
When the smell got really bad last summer, he says he walked over and asked one of the farmhands what they planned to do with the manure.
“They [were] going to incorporate into ground, but they hadn’t worked the ground yet at all. It’s still not worked,” Wilkinson says.
Farmer John Harris owns land four miles from Valley Oaks, is a member of the MCA and recently toured the facility.
“I’m glad Valley Oaks is here to support this community,” Harris says.“It’s neighbor-friendly, and environmentally friendly. Compared to the feedlots we’ve seen in 12 different states, I rank this up in the top three.”
Thirty-five-year Johnson County resident Chuck Petentler asked the DNR to take area residents’ concerns about health and well-being into consideration.
“If anything they said is remotely true. If yes, there’s a chance they will suffer severe illnesses, or their lifestyle will be changed, let’s say 1 in 10. My opinion, that’s enough to say wait,” Petentler says.
The Missouri DNR encouraged people to continue submitting their concerns, and said it will consider holding another hearing; the feedlot and the slaughterhouse have separate permits for expansion.
Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.