With Costco chicken plant set to open, Nebraskans want more oversight of poultry farms

The arrival of a Costco chicken processing plant in Fremont, Nebraska, spurred the introduction of the state’s first industrial chicken farms in 2018. With the plant set to begin operations after Labor Day, some residents are pushing for stronger — or any — oversight of large poultry farms in the state.

Lancaster County, home to the state’s capital of Lincoln, has been the site of the most recent debate about how chicken farms are regulated. Last October and again in July, the county’s commissioners considered a moratorium on new poultry farms, prompted by residents’ concerns about water and air pollution.

Both times, the commissioners decided against the moratorium. But the county is now considering zoning changes that could address concerns about the minimal oversight chicken farms in Nebraska receive and how little is required of farmers before they being operations that can house tens of thousands of birds. A 10-member working group has been meeting regularly to debate and draft those changes, though there is no specific deadline for their recommendations.

Meanwhile, soon-to-be neighbors of one of the largest chicken farms ever in Nebraska are deeply concerned about their prospects if the farms continue to spread across the ag-friendly state.

Lori and Jory Heiss live about a quarter-mile from a proposed 380,000-bird, eight-barn chicken farm on the border of Lancaster and Saunders counties. They’re worried about the bad odors, increased traffic, and plummeting property values that often accompany the arrival of an industrial livestock operation.

“We love ag,” says Jory Heiss. But “we’re concerned with how large the site is, because there’s just not any regulations.”

Current state law requires only that chicken farms get a special permit, after which they are able to operate with virtually no restrictions. According to documents from the meetings of Lancaster County’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Working Group, other counties require that farms be located at least a minimum distance from residences, create manure management plans, or file for additional permits.

Some of those stipulations are being considered in the drafts of the proposed regulatory changes that the working group will eventually present to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department. But some residents are skeptical of the working group’s ability to come up with a plan that will actually protect the county’s resources and residents.

Graham Christensen, a farmer and the founder of a company that aids in local community organizing efforts, says the working group hasn’t considered more comprehensive sustainability goals like requiring environmental impact statements or regenerative practices on the farms. He fears “this task force is not going to [make] any adequate suggestions, and then the county’s going to have to figure out how to do this itself.”

Meanwhile, Costco’s Fremont plant is speeding toward its opening, planned for shortly after Labor Day. The plant is expected to supply more than 2 million chickens each week to stock Costco with its $5 rotisserie chickens. The retailer sells about 60 million chickens each year, and the Fremont plant will produce about 40 percent of them. The plant will make Costco the first retailer to control its chicken supply from farm to shelf.

Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company contracting with Nebraska poultry farmers on Costco’s behalf, seemed to struggle at times to get farmers to sign its 15-year contracts. In January 2018, a local news report said the company was in the “final stages” of recruiting farmers to grow for Costco. But in January of this year, Lincoln said it had just 60 percent of the number of farms it needed to supply the plant.

Now, says Jessica Kolterman, the spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company is “almost at 100 percent” enrollment of farmers. Earlier estimates projected the company would contract with roughly 100 to 125 farmers managing four-barn farms. Kolterman says there are now approximately 70 farms lined up to grow for Costco. The difference is in part accounted for by the introduction of larger operations, containing eight or 12 barns.

The distance between the farms and the Fremont processing plant has also expanded. What was once estimated to be a 60-mile radius now extends at least 70 miles and includes five counties in Iowa.

Residents who criticize Big Ag in Nebraska can face harsh reactions from their neighbors, locals say. The Heisses say they’re big supporters of agriculture, and they are themselves hobby farmers. But their public opposition to the influx of chicken barns has led to a backlash from neighbors and on social media.

“They get on there and hammer that it’s good for the farmers, and ‘why are we against farming?’ ” says Jory Heiss.

Despite the tension, Christensen says there’s been rising public interest in the issue, especially as the radius of the operations has expanded into somewhat more densely populated areas like Lancaster County. “More and more people are becoming aware because so many people are being directly impacted,” he says. “The numbers are starting to come back on our side, but they’re loaded with money,” he says of Costco.

The Heisses also note Costco’s powerful position in its relationship to the local community. “Costco’s so large that it doesn’t matter what we do, how many lawyers we get, it’s going to happen,” says Jory Heiss. “It’s hard to fight.”

The first poultry barns to grow for Costco in Nebraska opened in Dodge County in September 2018. Meetings over the past year to hear residents’ concerns have at times drawn hundreds. Before settling on Fremont for its processing plant, Costco was turned down by the town of Nickerson, just a few miles from Fremont.