The Community Meeting- 2/24/11

We met at 6pm at Lafayette Jr High School.  Heavy rains and wind were called for, and weather broadcasters around middle TN were recommending that people don’t leave their homes.  Several local championship sporting events were canceled for fear of extreme weather.  With all that, its hard to say whether the attendance was affected by these terrifying predictions and recommendations, but we had somewhere between 75 and 100 people attend.

I spoke at the start, with speeches by A.T. Terry, a former contract farmer with Tyson for several years who lost everything while trying to reveal problems with Tyson’s practices.  As an agricultural economist, Terry revealed the problems inherent in the Tyson business model, how the numbers don’t add up, often leaving farmers deep in debt.  He also spoke of the antibiotics used in feed, the health risks to litter exposure, and the stench created by such high concentrations of broilers in such a small space.  The audience asked many things of Terry, and revealed their own stories of health issues and experiences living near various parts of the industrial chicken business.

Marc Hudson also spoke.  A lifetime Macon County resident, Hudson has his own stories raising broilers for another large company.  Hudson spoke of his expensive efforts to keep his operation clean, but ultimately found the costs of running the operation to not impose on his neighbors prohibitive.  Despite taking a second job to help the business survive, he eventually went under and lost everything.  As he also pointed out, the economics don’t add up.  He referenced the financial sheets given out by industrial chicken operations, and how they were entirely fictional.  Yet these very documents are the only figures available, and act as appetizing enticements to farmers who are struggling to find their way in this difficult economy.  Hudson concluded that the farmer is subsidizing the industry, helping keep the price of food low for consumers at the expense of their own financial well-being.

A couple of Cobb employees attended the meeting, taking issue with the characterizations being offered, but refusing to take the microphone.  When asked why he wouldn’t take the mic, one mentioned that he has to protect his job.  It should be stated clearly that the broiler houses are very different than the pullet houses that Cobb is seeking contract farmers to build around the county.  The goal for phase 1 is 27- two chicken house complexes.  No one knows what phase 2 plans are.  His main objection to the information offered at the meeting was that, despite being owned by Tyson, Cobb is not Tyson, and runs a cleaner operation, and is managed independently.

Audience members want Cobb to put their money where their mouth is and allow residents to see operational chicken houses for themselves.  As just an employee, he probably doesn’t have the power to grant that request, but we all hope Cobb will send an official representative to the next meeting (March 17th), and will answer the communities concerns directly. The Cobb employee who spoke the most, tried to compare a small cattle farm to the smell and polluting potential of these high density chicken houses.  This got a skeptical response from the audience, and may have lost him some of the credibility he earned when he simply advocated for his company.

A woman whose house is next to the Lafayette Industrial Park where the Cobb hatchery was built, spoke about how disruptive the hatchery is to her life and the enjoyment of her home.  Giant generators make her entire house vibrate, and are loud enough to make outdoor conversation impossible, and even indoor conversation difficult.  She said that she and her neighbors originally presented all of their concerns to Cobb some years ago.  She now says that Cobb told them one thing and that reality is quite the opposite.

It is this that concerns so many of us.  We don’t feel like we can trust Cobb’s word, and her experience heightens those concerns.  Like all businesses, their corporate charter requires that profit come before anything else.  They may think that all businesses operate this way, and in large part that may be true, but I can say that is not universal because neither Jeff or I operate that way.  Yes, we too need money to pay the bills and keep the business afloat, but money is never prioritized over our human relationships or the concerns of the community.

All in all, I’d say the meeting was a success.  Of course we would like to have seen a bigger turnout, but grassroots movements always start small and build from there.  I’d like to thank everyone who attended, including the Cobb employees, who braved a somewhat hostile environment to attend.  If anyone from Cobb is reading this blog, we would like to invite you to attend the next meeting.  You will be allowed to speak, and frankly, we prefer a very open conversation to try and resolve these issues. You have not operated openly to reach this point, but your days of advancing your agenda while flying under our radar are over.

Like I said at the beginning of the meeting last night- it is not our goal to tell people what business to pursue, but this is not your community.  We are not against chickens, which we had for dinner last night, raised in Lebanon in a sustainable fashion.  Good neighbors are responsive to one another, and you are turning neighbors against each other.  This rift that is forming in the community over your plans and presence doesn’t serve anyone.  We all love freedom, and don’t wish to deny anyone theirs, but we don’t take kindly to the threat you pose to ours, and we don’t intend to sit by quietly while your pursuit of profit tears our community apart and impedes our ability to maintain our businesses.

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