Officials push for lifting moratorium on poultry permits

Community leaders met with state and Cherokee Nation officials Wednesday in an effort to determine when a moratorium on the construction of poultry houses might be lifted.

The moratorium has halted the efforts by Aviagen, Inc., in Sallisaw from expanding its growing operations in the area, according to Justin Kelly, Aviagen's Sallisaw complex manager.

Kelly said Aviagen currently has 48 poultry houses in Sequoyah and the surrounding counties of Haskell, McIntosh, Muskogee and Adair, and the company wants to add 48 more.

Blayne Arthur, named by incoming Gov. Kevin Stitt to be the state's Secretary of Agriculture, and Sara Hill, Secretary of Natural Resources for the Cherokee Nation, met with representatives of Arvest, Armstrong, Firstar banks and National Bank of Sallisaw for an information session at Roma's restaurant.

Also attending were Sallisaw Mayor Ernie Martens, Buddy Spencer, chairman of Sallisaw Improvement Corporation (SIC), other members of SIC, members of the Sallisaw City Commission and Sen. Mark Allen.

In October, 2018, the Oklahoma Board of Agriculture placed a moratorium on new registrations for poultry feeding operations. Just one month prior to that, Gov. Mary Fallin and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker announced the formation of the Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth.

In 2018, about 200 poultry houses had sprang up, according to agriculture department figures, which prompted concerns from citizens, particularly in Delaware County, over the impact chicken houses would have on water quality and supply, property values, road maintenance and air quality.

In making the announcement of the moratorium at the time, Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese said it was a good time to pause and make certain the poultry industry is able to grow without the concerns that occurred.

Aviagen is different from other poultry operations in that it actually supplies breeder stock to growers who, in turn, produce poultry for consumption.

Kelly said Aviagen chose this location because there are no other poultry houses in the area. He said Aviagen operations do not go past the county line to the south due to that area being the territory of businesses such as OK Foods and Tyson.

This is primarily due to Aviagen's strict bio-security operations that helps the company prevent its stock from being exposed to diseases.

“Our business here is quite a bit different. We're smaller, more contained farms that would need to be taken into consideration,” Kelly told Arthur in questioning the possible lifting of the moratorium. “If we have less than 30,000 birds we're good to go?”

Arthur said she would hesitate to say right now, since she will not be taking the office until Monday. “We will need to be out talking to people,” she added.

“We're here anytime,” Kelly said. “We would love to have you out at one of our farms. There is a lot of opportunity for us here. We'd love to grow our business. We're a small division compared to our other divisions. We like the wide open spaces because it's better for security.” 

“I look forward to learning more,” Arthur said. “It's (Agriculture Department) a large agency with a lot of things on its agenda. I'll have to see where the regulations are. Some things we will be looking at next week.”

Hill said the moratorium was the result of a lot of poultry houses being built in southern Delaware County. “The community was concerned and didn't like the way it was changing the community,” she said. “The governor froze permits to build. It's (the moratorium) due to expire in May. If nothing is done in the legislature, it could expire.”

Allen, who will serve on the Agriculture Committee in the state Senate, said the legislature goes into session Feb. 5, indicating that committee would likely look at the issue to see what can be done.

Arthur was hesitant to make any concrete statements since she has not had time to go over things in the department she will head. She said there is untapped potential for ag producers , for revitalizing rural parts of the state. “There are a lot of challenges ahead. We want to try to diversify and be a supporter for ranchers and farmers in Oklahoma,” she said.

Spencer told Arthur, Aviagen has had recent expansion and SIC has provided enough land for Aviagen to expand even more. 

“They've expanded their hatchery and expanding their feed mills. They are a good corporate neighbor for us here in town and a big asset to us here in the county where we're always at the lower end economically. They provide 175 jobs that are not minimum wage, and have full benefits,” Spencer said.

Martens praised Aviagen for being a leader in bio-security. “I'm really impressed with what you're doing,” he said.

“We're here because we need to be by ourselves. We won't go within five miles of another operation,” Kelly said. We don't do anything south of the (county) line.”

Sequoyah County Times

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