The ‘Healthy’ Meat: Can intensive chicken farming co-exist in springs country?

By Stephen Paolini

FORT WHITE – This slow-paced community of 567 in southern Columbia County is home to some of North Florida’s best-known waters, such as the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers and Ichetucknee Springs State Park, a sparkling tourist destination and a centerpiece of the rural community’s economic vitality and way of life.

About a mile from town, it is also slated to be home to more than 1.5 million chickens a year. Chickens generate more waste per pound than any other livestock – even more, pound per pound, than humans. In fact, that number of chickens produces the annual waste equivalent of a town of tens of thousands of people, with nowhere near the equivalent regulatory scrutiny.

The operation raises an eternal Florida question: Will the water still sparkle that close to the waste? The question squares citizens who fear the facility could endanger public health, waterways and the economy against Florida’s “Right to Farm” tradition.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson is the owner of Rum 138, an outfitter on the crystal-clear Santa Fe River, and founder of Our Santa Fe River, a local water advocacy non-profit. JTC farms is owned by Terry Nguyen and Larry Huynh of Land O’ Lakes and is affiliated with Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the largest chicken distributors in the country.

In 2015, Huynh and Nguyen – who responded briefly by email but declined to be interviewed – purchased 73 acres of land at the corner of SW Wilson Springs Road and SW Briar Patch Terrace, a little over a mile from the lower Santa Fe River, for $170,000. North Carolina-based Live Oak Bank, a specialty agricultural bank with former Pilgrim’s Pride CEO Don W. Jackson on its board, loaned JTC Farms $1.9 million to build the farm.

The farm itself will take up a relatively small 5.92 acres with 12 chicken coops, a utility barn, litter barn and residence; each coop will house approximately 25,000 chickens. In all, about 300,000 chickens will be on site at any time; with more than 1.5 million chickens yearly. Such large poultry houses are increasingly common in America’s rural landscapes.

Fowl history

Until about 1930, chickens were raised primarily on family farms and the meat was considered a byproduct of egg production, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Farm flocks tended to be small. Hens foraged and usually were fed some grain, scraps and waste products. The dynamic began to change in World War II when the U.S Army became the largest consumer of chicken. After the war, industrial agriculture took off and powered the growth of the chicken industry with new technical and management innovations. According to Lilyan Fulginiti of the University of Nebraska, “a higher rate of technical progress in the poultry industry than in the red meat industry” has translated into substantial cost reduction for what has now become America’s favorite meat.

According to the NASS, chicken consumption surpassed pork in 1985 and beef in 1992. Perceived health benefits helped drive the increase. The idea of chicken as a healthy meat alternative is “a clear industry success in developing and marketing a product bearing a set of desirable characteristics,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The combined effect of lower costs and public perception established chicken as America’s primary protein. Today, Americans consume more chicken than any other population in the world. Since 1965 our annual chicken consumption has tripled from 32 pounds per person to 90 pounds per person.

In 2015, U.S. farmers produced close to 9 billion broilers with a live weight of 53 billion pounds. In all, 25,000 family farms with contracts with the major chicken producing companies like Tyson, Purdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride create a $90 billion industry employing 280,800 people and providing another 1.3 million indirect jobs.

Of course, all those chickens must also eat, and therein lies the irony of chicken as the healthful meat. They require 55 million tons of feed; the industry consumes 1.2 billion bushels of corn and 500 million bushels of soy. More important is where that food goes: Chickens produce more waste per animal pound than any other livestock, at 80 pounds of waste for every 1,000 pounds of poultry, according to the USDA. By comparison, swine produce 63 pounds of daily waste per 1,000 pounds of weight. Beef cattle produce 59 pounds of manure per 1,000 pounds, turkeys 43 pounds a day. Wastewater engineers say that humans, too, produce less than chickens, pound per pound.

Water-centered town

For many Fort White-area residents, the issues come down to that waste – and the region’s singular freshwater resources.

Traveling through the small community at the intersection of State Roads 27 and 47, downtown appears in the blink of an eye and a traffic light. Around every corner, the town opens up to a quiet rural landscape of grassy pastures and rows of trees. Homesteads dot the sides of the narrow roads. Horses and cows graze peacefully along rows of crops. Interspersed between the quiet residences lie sinkholes and scars of the phosphate mining industry. Down Wilson Springs Road, the landscape opens up to large plot of cleared land, with row upon row of long wooden structures standing unfinished in the sand.

Several residential districts surround the farm. The Briar Patch community is a quiet collection of 15 homesteads. Some residents have lived there their entire lives. “For Sale” signs signal the defeat of others who have moved to avoid the chicken facility. A small child and his mother ride an ATV 4-wheeler along the unpaved road bordering the farm.

Down the road, a thick-wooded neighborhood borders the lower Santa Fe River. Children play in the water. Dogs watch from the balconies of stilted homes raised above the ground to accommodate summertime floods.

Rum 138 is a vibrantly colored kayak and canoe outfitter serving the lower Santa Fe River. Several men work to set-up a stage for a local song contest where residents will get together to celebrate their community with music and food.

Malwitz-Jipson, who moved to rural Fort White to get closer to nature, runs Rum 138 with her husband. Her environmental activism took root around the springwater-bottling industry. As she got closer to the issues, she fell in love with advocacy. “I think my civics 101 classes from middle school prepared me,” she said. “The community cares deeply but doesn’t know how to get involved.”

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson is the owner of Rum 138, and founder of a local water advocacy non-profit called Our Santa Fe River. Photo by Andrea Cornejo.

In a town hall meeting with city commissioners, farm representatives and local citizens, more than a hundred residents showed up to oppose the chicken farm and its effects, bearing petitions with over a thousand signatures. Much of the concern has revolved around water recharge: the quality of the region’s surface and groundwaters directly impacts that of the aquifer underfoot, which also feeds the local springs. Yet despite its proximity to the springsheds of the Santa Fe River, the chicken farm has moved forward with relative ease. “I did not see any barrier during construction,” said Nguyen, who described the project as a “mega construction.”

According to Wendell Porter, an agricultural and operations management expert at the University of Florida, the regulations surrounding chicken operations have not adapted to intensive modern agriculture. Despite serious harmful effects, “there’s just not a lot of regulation,” he said, “there just flat isn’t.” Only two permits have been required for the facility: First, the generic stormwater permit required for any standing structures in Columbia County. Second, a general environmental resource permit designated for “certain activities that have been determined to have minimal impacts to the water resources of the state.”

While the federal Clean Water Act authorizes the state DEP to issue and require a waste and wastewater permit from what is known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), if the facility does not discharge directly to surface water, state regulators are not required to do so.

According to Mary Smith of DEP’s Industrial Wastewater Program, the term CAFO is defined by the EPA in federal rule. First, a facility must fall under the characteristics of a standard Animal Feeding Operation (AFO). AFOs are defined as facilities where animals are maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12 month-period and where no crops, vegetation, or forage growth are grown in the normal agricultural season. A facility is considered a CAFO if it meets these criteria and a certain number of animals on site. For chicken broiler facilities, that threshold is 125,000 animals.

Yet in this case DEP did not require a waste or wastewater permit because it found the farm’s voluntary waste-management strategy, which will turn the waste into organic fertilizer and transport it off-site, is sufficient to prove discharge will not occur.

Darrell Smith is an agricultural director for the Suwanee River Water Management District that issued the resource and stormwater permits. He explained that stormwater and environmental resource permits are issued if requested by an agricultural operation – and not meant to be barriers for agricultural operations. In addition, no investigation or survey of the land was conducted prior to issuance. This was true even though questions on the form to describe construction and scheduling, qualifications for the permit, and the impact on aquatic habitats were left blank. The only information provided was proof of purchase on the land.

In the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s handbook on the effects of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations on local communities, the impacts are not just environmental, but also relate to public health and the economy.

Camille Swartz, a resident and mother within a half a mile of the farm, spoke at one public hearing of her concerns for her daughter’s health, mosquitoes and land value loss. The CDC asserts that large populations of livestock in industrial settings can increase insect vectors and the spread of pathogens and diseases. Furthermore, within three miles of a CAFO, residential areas could see significant drops in land value ranging between 6 percent and 88 percent because of proximity, according to the CDC.

Noreen Dismore, a resident within eyeshot of the facility, said she witnessed the destruction and disappearance of gopher tortoises, a protected species. Following an investigation, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found construction lead to 17 “missing” tortoises and fined JTC farms in excess of $30,000 for mitigation.

CAFOs can also have a considerable impact on a community’s infrastructure, Porter explained. Numerous semi-trucks will haul live broilers, feed and byproducts from the farm to processing facilities. An overflow of heavy traffic from packed semi-trucks is likely to damage the rural, low-density SW Briar Patch Terrace and SW Wilson Springs Road, he predicts.

Right to Farm

The case reflects Florida’s unique favor toward agricultural production that can overshadow the state’s commitment to environmental protection, according to UF environmental historian Jack E. Davis. As an excerpt from the Florida Right to Farm Act explains, “the Legislature finds that agricultural production is a major contributor to the economy of the state; that agricultural lands constitute unique and irreplaceable resources of statewide importance; that the continuation of agricultural activities preserves the landscape and environmental resources of the state.”

Columbia County officials, including county attorney Joel Foreman and Commissioner Scarlet Frisina, defended the chicken farm in Fort White by citing Right-to-Farm. Frisina also stressed that people who move to a rural community should know they may someday have a chicken farm for a neighbor. “Hearing the issue about the water to me is one thing that I sympathize with,” Frisina said. “Hearing the concerns about how close you live to it, on issues other than water quality I take issue with. You chose to move into that area; into an agricultural community.”

Florida’s Right to Farm Act was established in 1979 as a response to loss of agricultural land throughout Florida as the state became more urbanized. It provides for a defense against nuisance lawsuits by protecting the right of homesteads to have agricultural operations on their land. Indeed, the Right to Farm Act is clear in such cases of agricultural production and operations in the traditional sense. However, it gets more complicated with the introduction of intensive agriculture producing millions of broilers on less than six acres of land.

Frisina explains that the areas surrounding the facility are, likewise, homestead farms. But a home with two horses is hardly the same operation as 1.5 million chickens. Recent conflicts with Right-to-Farm beg the question: Just because an industrial farm has a residence on it – is it a homestead in the spirit of the law? Florida’s legal and regulatory frameworks fail to make the distinction.

Nearby resident Charles O’Donnell objected to insistence that the operation was a farm, asserting that “farming and factory operations are two different things.”

One major difference between homesteads and major agricultural operations is their connections to the country’s largest distribution networks. JTC Farms received direct support from one of the largest chicken distributors in the country. Pilgrim’s Pride representative Jason Scarborough spoke to the company’s connection to JTC Farms during a town hall meeting, explaining that the corporation assisted JTC farms in understanding laws, regulations and farming practices to ensure the farm’s success.

Despite a divided community, fighting the farm appears to be a losing battle and construction is moving forward. Still, Malwitz-Jipson remains optimistic because the issue has led to both community engagement and regulatory change. “I do know that we have actually engaged the state,” she said. Citizens who came together to oppose the farm later met with county commissioners to strengthen protection for water and small homesteads in the future. The citizens have created a list of principles they are working toward:

  • Changes to land-use management and agricultural zoning to protect high-recharge areas for the Floridan Aquifer.
  • A specific animal threshold per acre to prevent overly intense feeding operations.
  • Specific requirements requiring citizens to be made aware of land use changes; for example a change from fallow, or unused, to intensive agriculture.
  • Provisions to allow the county to require waste and wastewater permits like the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, in the absence of DEP doing so.

The citizens of Columbia County may need these principles sooner than they thought. Nyugen wrote in an email about a second farm that “will be same size and nearby our first farm.”

It appears another chicken farm may be in the works for the region.

An industrial-scale chicken farm near the Santa Fe River will house more than 1.5 million chickens a year. (photos by Andrea Cornejo)

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.