The Texas Observer

Citizen Group Promises to Be ‘Thorn in the Side’ of New East Texas Factory Farm

Thousands of chickens at a CAFO.

Citizen Group Promises to Be ‘Thorn in the Side’ of New East Texas Factory Farm

One of the world’s poultry heavyweights is expanding in East Texas, and rural landowners concerned about the stench and pollution have a message for the company: The cluck stops here.

Operating under the name Concerned Citizens of Rains County, the landowners say they’ll be scrutinizing the new Sanderson Farms development, which includes the construction of a network of massive chicken houses near Tyler and neighboring communities. With an average of eight chicken houses apiece, each of these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) will be capable of raising tens of millions of birds each year.

CAFOs, often called factory farms, have been criticized for stinking up the air and polluting local water sources, exploiting contractors who operate the farms for agribusiness firms, and subjecting animals to cruel conditions. Concerned Citizens of Rains County aims to keep tabs on air and water quality and report findings to state authorities, said member Stella Larson.

“We will be a thorn in their sides because we will be reporting everything,” Larson said.

CAFOs have helped triple meat production in the United States since 1960, even as the number of small family farms has dwindled. But they also produce concentrated clouds of ammonia and other gases that waft to neighboring properties. The facilities also generate huge quantities of E. coli-laced manure that get into streams and lakes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms already owns a handful of operations in Texas, including a processing plant 70 miles south of Tyler in Palestine. In August, Palestine residents complained of strong odors from neighboring farms that contract with Sanderson: “You can almost taste it,” one man who lives nearby told the Palestine Herald-Press. After chicken farms started popping up near Mexia around 2010, some neighbors decided to leave, citing unbearable odors and rust-colored pond water from runoff.

Sanderson Farms was lured to the rural communities near Tyler by an $18 million incentive package of free land and tax abatements, said Tom Mullins, CEO of the Tyler Economic Development Council, which brokered the deal. In return, the company is expected to have a $1 billion economic impact over a decade and create 1,600 jobs. Mullins called the deal “a game-changer for northeast Texas.”

Headshot of Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner.  Texas Department of Agriculture

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller hailed the expansion in March, saying the company “couldn’t have picked a better location than Texas to construct new facilities.”

Work has already begun on the sprawling new operation, which is divided into four parts: a feed mill near Mineola in Wood County; offices and a hatchery in nearby Lindale; a processing plant just north of Tyler; and 80 farms that will send 1.5 million broiler chickens a week for processing. The project is slated for completion in early 2019.

Mullins said Sanderson Farms is more “environmentally sensitive” than other industrial poultry growers, but couldn’t cite exactly what makes the company different. Mercy Rushing, the city manager and economic development director of Mineola, said she was told Sanderson is “totally green.”

Larson, of the Concerned Citizens group, is unconvinced. “We love our neighbors, but we don’t want those CAFOs. If they bring those chickens, they will not be welcome,” she said.