Facing public opposition, Tyson ends bid for a chicken plant in Kansas

Tyson, the largest poultry company in the U.S., has failed at its second attempt to find a location for a new meatpacking facility in Kansas. Last week, an economic development group in Sedgwick County withdrew its bid for the $320 million plant. The decision came amidst an outpouring of public backlash, and follows Tyson’s squashed attempts earlier this year to build the same facility in Tonganoxie, Kansas.

Residents of Sedgwick County learned of the company’s plan to move into their region in late October, after all five county commissioners had already signed a letter inviting Tyson to build in the area. The letter was sent just a few weeks after Tyson had failed to build the same plant in Leavenworth County. Around 2,500 residents of Tonganoxie (population 5,326), a city in Leavenworth County, attended a rally against the plant, ultimately forcing the county to rescind its support.

The plant would have been Tyson’s first brand-new processing facility since 1996. It would have slaughtered, processed, and packaged more than a million birds each week, been accompanied by a hatchery and feed mill, and, according to Tyson, have brought 1,600 jobs to the region.

But Janice Bradley, an activist in Sedgwick County who helped lead the opposition to Tyson’s plant, says “these are not the kind of jobs we want.” She notes that many of the jobs would barely pay minimum wage to work in one of the most dangerous industries in the country. She says residents were also concerned that the plant’s water needs and waste output would affect locals’ access to clean well water.

The plant would have required an enormous boost in chicken production in the state, where large-scale poultry operations are largely absent. Many farmers and farming communities are increasingly wary of inviting large-scale chicken production, as information about the environmental, labor, and economic harms of industrial chicken farming have become more widely known.

Farmers in particular are less willing to invest millions in expensive infrastructure only to be paid through the opaque “tournament system” that pits farmer against farmer in a zero-sum pay structure. Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas Farmers Union, says that his opposition to the plant stems from his position that “concentrated agriculture isn’t good for the local economy and society and, as a rule, for the producers.”

But despite these concerns, Kansas legislators have sought proposals from meatpackers for new facilities and otherwise built relationships with the livestock industry. Kansas this summer joined the Poultry Federation, a trade organization that represents the poultry and egg industries in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Members of the Poultry Federation include the largest poultry and egg companies, including Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Mountaire, Cargill, and Cal-Maine.

The largest meatpackers have faced growing opposition to new plants in rural towns. Last year, Food & Power covered successful community resistance against proposed meatpacking plants in Nickerson, Nebraska and Mason City, Iowa. Opposition to such plants has united an unlikely coalition of farmers, environmentalists, animal welfare groups, and sustainable agriculture advocates. At times, opposition has also evoked an anti-immigrant sentiment from residents. Many meatpacking plants rely heavily on immigrant labor.

After the company’s defeats in Leavenworth County and Sedgwick County, Tyson now says it is no longer considering any plant locations in Kansas. The company’s new target location for the plant is Humboldt, Tennessee, a town about 100 miles from Memphis. The area is significantly poorer than the proposed locations in Kansas, with a median income about half of Tonganoxie’s and two-thirds of Sedgwick County’s. It is also significantly more diverse.

In many regions, meatpacking plants and industrial farming operations are located in lower-income communities and communities of color, which bear the brunt of the environmental and health effects of intensive livestock production. In Duplin County, North Carolina, 500 primarily black residents filed a class-action lawsuit this year against Murphy Brown, the biggest hog producer in the state and a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, alleging that the company sprayed untreated pig waste in their communities.

 Leah Douglas, a contributor to FERN’s Ag Insider, is a reporter and policy analyst with The Open Markets Institute. She writes and publishes Food & Power, where this piece first appeared.