Residents of Nickerson, Nebraska, have been fighting against big poultry farms entering their community since Costco announced it would be bringing a processing plant to the state. Recently, residents persuaded a local governance board to deny a farm permit to a family that wanted to build 10 chicken barns in the small town.
But last week, the board reversed its decision. The reversal came soon after Gov. Pete Ricketts had expressed his support for such operations and challenged the county to better serve farmers. It also coincided with the arrival of a proposed right-to-farm expansion that aims to restrict lawsuits against farming operations.
Nebraska has been embroiled in a debate about poultry farming since Costco’s processing plant was first announced in 2016. The plant brought with it a demand for the first large-scale poultry farms the state had ever seen. Residents of Nickerson have been outspoken about the potential impacts that poultry farm pollution, traffic, and smells could have on their community. They fended off Costco’s plan to locate the processing plant in their town; it was instead built 15 minutes down the road in Fremont.
Now, as Costco’s partner Lincoln Premium Poultry recruits farmers to supply the chain’s trademark rotisserie chickens and community protests continue, state regulators are weighing in on the debate. After the Dodge County Board in January denied a permit to the family seeking to build a 10-barn, 400,000-chicken operation in Nickerson, it was Gov. Ricketts’ turn.
“Dodge County has to live up to” its designation as a livestock-friendly county, he said the day after the board’s decision was announced. He also expressed support for an expanded right-to-farm law that would fast-track expansions like the one in Dodge County and undermine local control of that process.
Then, in late February, the Dodge County Board reversed its decision. In a 6-0 vote, the representatives approved a slightly scaled back eight-barn farm proposal to the disappointment of the farm’s neighbors. One told the Omaha World-Herald that Gov. Ricketts “should be focused on state business.”
Ricketts, a longtime friend of the agriculture industry, has rolled out the welcome mat for large-scale poultry farming in Nebraska. He supported overturning the state’s “packer ban” in 2016, which opened the state livestock industry to corporate ownership of land and animals and the type of vertically integrated chicken growing that Costco depends on. He even suggested this week that the state could welcome a second Costco plant once the first is up and running.
Ricketts has also supported expanding the state’s right-to-farm laws, which protect farmers from “nuisance” lawsuits targeting the routine smells and sounds created by farming. In several states, farm industry interests have used the right-to-farm framework to shield farmers from lawsuits that target pollution, smells, and runoff from farms that can have hundreds or thousands of animals. Ricketts supported a right-to-farm constitutional amendment that was withdrawn from the Nebraska Unicameral in 2016.
Nebraska state legislators are currently considering the right-to-farm question anew. On Jan. 14, state senator Dan Hughes introduced a right-to-farm bill that would prevent farms from being found to be a nuisance if they have been operating for more than a year or haven’t made a significant change in their operation. The text of the bill says that “a change in the ownership or size of the farm” does not qualify as a significant change, leading opponents to worry that the bill will protect operators of large-scale livestock operations from virtually any legal action.
Sen. Hughes says he introduced the bill in reaction to lawsuits that farm neighbors have brought in North Carolina against hog farms. The plaintiffs charged that mismanagement of waste had affected their quality of life and health. “If you look at what’s been going on in one of the Carolinas, there have been successful lawsuits against livestock feeding operations,” Hughes said in a February interview. “We’re trying to make sure that that same scenario does not play out here in Nebraska.”
The bill is supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau and Nebraska Cattlemen, the state affiliate of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the lobbying voice of the beef industry.
There’s another connection between the right-to-farm expansion and Costco’s ambitions in the state. The third sponsor of the right-to-farm bill is state Senator Mark Kolterman. His daughter, Jessica Kolterman, is external affairs manager for Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company managing Costco’s Fremont processing plant.