TN organic farmer believes land at risk Corporate chicken farm may alter area

Tennessean Newspaper

Jeff Poppen feeds his chickens at his Long Hungry Creek organic farm in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn. Poppen is worried that a new corporate chicken farm next door will bring odors and toxic waste to the area. / JAE S. LEE / THE TENNESSEAN

Mar. 20, 2011

Written by Anne Paine

RED BOILING SPRINGS, Tenn. — Jeff Poppen’s chickens followed him as he carried
a bucket of grain across one of his organic fields at Long Hungry Creek Farm last week.

Above them, atop a steep hill just behind Poppen’s fruit and vegetable gardens, stood a pile of dirt.

A neighbor is building two long, low houses to confine and grow 40,000 chicks in five-month cycles for Cobb-Vantress, a chicken breeding subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc.

The bulldozer’s work marked the beginning of a struggle between a farmer, who supplies organic produce seasonally to about 175 Nashville households and a few gourmet restaurants, and a mega-corporation that ships millions of eggs and chickens a week.

At the same time it’s a showdown between two little guys — the organic farmer, with about a dozen chickens, and his neighbor, who will be hosting the corporation’s operation.

That’s how it’s done in the big-time chicken industry.

The buildings will be bio-secure, the company says. Five-minute showers and special garb will be required on entry to control the possible spread of deadly bacteria or viruses with so many animals in close quarters.

This is just one of 27 such operations that Cobb-Vantress hopes to set up on farms in the area, saying they offer income and are safe.

Poppen’s farm is biodynamic, based on natural relationships of soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system. He said a factory farm looming over him could drive him out. He’s concerned about stifling odors, bacteria-tainted dust, and streams and wells contaminated by excessive waste spread on fields.

“I’ll be downwind, downstream and down the hill from one of the most toxic industries I know of,” said Poppen, often referred to as the Barefoot Farmer for frequently being shoeless.

Poppen isn’t the average organic farmer. Over 30 years, he has built a reputation through workshops, appearances on WNPT’s Volunteer Gardener show, and the food he has provided to Nashvillians and the Capitol Grille and Tayst restaurants.

A slurry of drying mud from his neighbor’s hilltop property coated part of his garden after a recent rain. He expects toxic things to come downhill soon.

Cobb-Vantress said its operations are not a nuisance or health hazard. So does Lundy Russell, the neighbor building the houses.

Russell said he grows crops on part of his land, but he wanted the chicken operation to bump up his income. Tobacco and the money paid not to grow it are going away, he said, and a replacement was needed. Chickens seemed a good fit.

“All summer and last summer, I drove around to the ones already put in to see if they do smell,” he said, adding that he checked even when they were being cleaned out.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “Behind the building where the fans are, you can’t smell anything, just some feed. It looks like a good opportunity to me.”

600,000 chicks a week

This is the early stage of a move of Cobb-Vantress’ breeder operations into the Lafayette-Macon County area. The corporation, headquartered in Siloam Springs, Ark., has built a $12.5 million egg hatchery in Lafayette, with infrastructure support from $500,000 in state funds.

The chicks — 600,000 to be hatched a week — will go to chicken houses in this country and abroad as breeders for an industry that supplies chicken meat worldwide.

Russell will raise chicks for 22 months before they’re sent to lay eggs for about a year. Then they, too, are slaughtered for food.

The industry has learned that disease can race through confined animal operations, causing a major economic loss. So, all the houses require showers, special clothing, an incinerator for dead birds and regular checks by Cobb-Vantress staff for bio-security.

“At the end of the day, we need them to be successful for us to be successful,” said Aldo Rossi, general manager for North America Cobb-Vantress.

The state Department of Environment, which has received 385 messages of concern, is considering giving Russell a general permit that allows the houses. Because he said no water would be discharged and most waste would be hauled to another location, as yet unknown, no other permits nor a public hearing would be needed.

Poppen and others have talked with Russell and with state and local leaders.

“We asked for a public hearing,” said neighbor Melinda Ferguson, Macon County’s longtime register of deeds. “It’s like you’re talking to a wall. They say that because it is agriculture that nobody can tell them what to do.”

Chickens can be blessing

Scott Hinton, who wanted to get into farming, built two chicken houses in Sumner County a year ago and said that they have been a blessing.

They’ve brought in more income than his tool-and-die work, he said. They’re 600 feet from his home, and he and his wife, a respiratory therapist, find the air around them hasn’t been affected.

Cobb-Vantress staff have been “like family,” helping him get started, he said. Farmers and others want the waste that’s cleaned out twice a year to use as fertilizer.

Poppen insists that chicken waste doesn’t provide a healthy fertilizer after it accumulates on a concrete floor for half a year instead of mixing with the soil in the air, sun and rain.

Some Macon County residents have had bad experiences with chicken farms.

Glennon Wix, a senior citizen who has chicken houses north and west of her home, said she suffers from ammonia- and fecal-like smells. The chickens are raised for slaughter as broilers.

A son, who died, had histoplasmosis, a disease that can result from inhaling fungus from bird fecal matter. She said her breathing has become increasingly labored since the houses located nearby in the late 1990s.

“It’s really bad,” she said of the stench. “It’s smothery and burns the eyes and just affects your whole body — a nauseous, bad-to-the-bone smell.”

According to industry information, growing breeder chickens is different from broiler chicken raising. Generally, there aren’t so many houses and chickens, and there’s less truck traffic because the growing cycle is much longer for breeders.

The farming world’s “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, can put massive numbers of pigs, cattle or chickens in confined areas.

The animals are owned by the corporations, called integrators, while the farmer is under contract and responsible for the land, equipment, animal care and waste.

Waste can be problem

The waste has been a large problem in some cases, contaminating rivers and creeks. Air issues have arisen, too. CAFOs, which can release toxic gases, were exempted by the George W. Bush administration from most air laws that other industries must meet.

Often, animals are fed a parasite-killing, arsenic-containing substance called Roxarsone and also antibiotics as a way to promote fast growth. Both can end up in the meat and waste.

“We’re using the same antibiotics in animal production that we use in clinical medicine,” said Keeve Nachman, director of the Farming for the Future program with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Federal data indicate that 80 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are used in animal feed, he said. Such practices can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a serious public health threat.

One study by the Johns Hopkins center found that following a truck hauling chickens can result in bacteria — some of them antibiotic-resistant — ending up in one’s car if the windows are open.

Several European countries have begun banning such antibiotic use.

Russell, who has about a million-dollar loan for the buildings and equipment, said he wasn’t sure about the type of feed that the company would provide.

But Rossi said it would not contain antibiotics or arsenic. He said the food would be made up of corn and soybeans. Antibiotics would be used only in case of sickness of any birds.

The operations can bring discord to rural communities.

‘Jeff is the small guy’

“I see it as the more powerful taking advantage and that Jeff is the small guy and the neighbors are ‘nobodies,’ ” said Alan Powell, who works with Poppen. “They have full legal and marketing teams to work on this.”

In Tennessee, the Right to Farm Act presumes farmers are in the right, and Powell thinks a better delineation is needed today between farming and industry.

“Since when did farmers have to wear hazmat suits to go in a chicken house?” he said. “It’s not farming anymore. It’s industrial.”

The system is jiggered so that those at the top make a lot of money, while the farmers are lucky to get by, once they’ve been in the business for several years and their equipment starts to need upgrades, he said.

Hinton said he has talked to those who have been in the business a short time and a long time and hasn’t found cause for concern.

Still, many farmers have complained and gone bankrupt in the chicken industry, and a report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production recommended changing federal and state laws to provide a level playing field for producers entering contracts with integrators.

Doesn’t want to leave

Poppen also owns a 250-acre farm nearby where wetlands, fields and woods work together in a natural system for growing his produce, but he doesn’t want to leave his log home and 14-acre farm with fruit trees and what is now a clear Long Hungry Creek with crawfish and aquatic life.

Cabbages had sprouted in his garden, and an older farmer, Larry Crowder, stopped by to ask him to graft some June apple tree twigs onto apple seedlings for him.

Chorus frogs were singing, and a cave he uses as a walk-in cooler for his vegetables was at the ready for the coming crops.

“I like my neighbors,” Poppen said. “I like my chickens. But I’m opposed to the corporate farming model.”

From left, farm hands Luke Hyde, Fil Schultz and Ben Campbell have a morning meeting on the porch with Jeff Poppen in 2007. / JOHN PARTIPILO / FILE / THE TENNESSEAN
Organic farmer Jeff Poppen, seen here in 2007, keeps vegetables in the cool confines of a cave on his land. He believes the installation of chicken houses next door will bring odors and toxic waste. / JOHN PARTIPILO / TENNESSEAN

Reach Anne Paine at 615-259-8071 or

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  1. This really hits home with me. As being the son of a family farmer I know all too well the dismay big corporations and the government can bring to the small time farmer. If anyone actually cared about other people these days, Cobb-Vantress could’ve chosen an alternate location for their chicken houses, I mean come on you know they have the funds to purchase land elsewhere, away from a man trying to make a honest living. Chicken houses are perfectly fine however, the one this large company uses requires showers and special suits to enter? Smells a little like chicken shit to me. I’ve been around alot of livestock and crops and never did I once have to wear protective clothing to ensure the safety of the consumer. The differences from the top of the hill farm to the bottom of the hill are vast and show that Poppen is doing it the right way.

  2. Wanting to attend the April 8th event in Red Boiling Springs to become better educated about how the industrial chicken farming will affect this pristine area. Antibiotic resistant salmonella should be a major concern for the all if we value our children. It reared its ugly head last summer in California. Practices such as Tyson’s will insure more ill-health to Americans, and in this case, closer to home. Undocumented workers employed by industrial farms have suffered many undocumented health ailments related to work. as well. My cousin grows tobacco in VA. and wants nothing to do with a modern chicken farm because of what his seasonal employees have told him.

  3. The blog is wrong. Tyson nor Cobb does not require 5 minutes showers or special clothing before they enter the chicken house/farms. You need to check your facts again. The showers are not for the chicken houses or the farms.

    1. Sam,

      The blog is not wrong, their own contracts say about farm entry, “complete shower and shampoo is mandatory” (emphasis theirs). Further, the video I posted on our blog of a tour through one of these houses not only mentions the showers, they show them. Our facts are quite straight, but I am interested in where your “facts” came from.


  4. To Alan Powell:
    I would like to read your blog AND see the video you posted showing a tour through one of these horrible, industrial “range free” bldg. Perdue’s website under “Poultry Welfare” tab is proud to show the following verbiage under a photo::: :
    “As a flock supervisor in our breeder operations, Andrew Arant (dressed in biosecure garb to protect the health of the birds) works with independent producers who supply eggs to our hatcheries, ensuring the health and welfare of our breeder flocks and providing guidance to our producers.” ..

  5. Big Ag is a bunch of shit and I refuse to support it!! (And I spread the word among friends, families and my community.) This is so typical of Big Ag to locate the houses the way they did b/c they are trying to eliminate the competition so consumers will have no choice.

    We need antibiotics for health and medicine and they should NOT be used on factory farms to fatten up animals…it’s unhealthy to all life and it’s cruel to the animals stuffed into those barns.

    Big Ag is a monster that needs to be leashed!!

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