The same private equity firm funding Costco’s chicken houses is bankrolling what will soon be West Virginia’s largest poultry farms.
The same private equity firm funding Costco’s chicken houses is bankrolling what will soon be West Virginia’s largest poultry farms.
April 7, 2021
Dave Mathias’ family has worked the land around Moorefield in Hardy County, West Virginia, for generations. His home in the community of Old Fields is just a mile away from a farm where his grandfather raised cattle and his cousin later tended crops. But that cousin recently sold the land to WV Poultry Partners, LLC.
Now, it’s a construction site for 15 large confinement chicken houses that will supply Pilgrim’s Pride. Combined, the structures will cover the length of 26 football fields. Less than five miles away, in the same community, WV Poultry Partners is building an even bigger facility. That one will have the capacity to hold close to a million chickens at a time in 19 houses; a quiet subdivision built to overlook what was once a picturesque rolling meadow is about 1,000 feet away.
Mathias has no problem with conventional poultry farming; he has family members who raise chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride. But he is one of a small group of locals publicly voicing concerns about these new facilities. He’s worried that because of their size, they threaten the health and quality of life of residents and the livelihood of the region’s farmers, most of whom operate just a few poultry houses and could never afford to put $10 million into construction. And he’s angry that a private equity firm in North Carolina is behind it. “The money goes out of state, and Old Fields’ community will not benefit,” he said. “We’re getting used.”
The firm, Gallus Equity Partners, LLC, based in Wilmington, North Carolina, co-owns WV Poultry Partners with local real estate agent and developer Robert Williams. Gallus is led by Jody Murphey, the same investor behind at least a quarter of the chicken houses going up in Nebraska to feed Costco’s development of a vertically integrated rotisserie chicken supply chain. There, Murphey has been building operations that are significantly larger than those of most local farmers who have signed on to work with Costco. According to public records, his operations in Nebraska and surrounding states have 12 to 16 barns each, housing either 570,000 or 760,000 chickens in one place.
Like many states, West Virginia does not track Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) size or locations, but several locals and people familiar with the industry said that most farms in the area have two to four houses. Driving around Hardy County, operations of that size appear often alongside the winding country roads that cut through the fertile river valley in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains.
The two planned complexes would likely be the largest ever built in the state—and potentially the region. (Industrial chicken farms in other parts of the country are larger.) “This is the biggest one that I know of . . . in West Virginia or Maryland, in my watershed, or even the Susquehanna watershed,” said Brent Walls, head of the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Network, who monitors water pollution in the region. “I’ve contacted other Riverkeepers, and there is nothing of this size around here.”
As the operations get bigger, local residents who once welcomed the poultry industry are beginning to question its promises and wondering whether the tradeoffs are worth the economic benefits. And while their organizing likely won’t affect progress on these two large operations, their efforts to change agricultural zoning laws could impact the future of the region—and others that face the same challenges—in significant ways.
“This county can rezone land—they can say, ‘We’re defining [these facilities] as intensive industrial agriculture, and we don’t allow those in agricultural districts.’” said Danielle Diamond, senior director of research and resources for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), an organization that fights the development of CAFOs all over the country.
“A lot of times what happens is . . . corporate agribusiness will seek out a rural community that really doesn’t have the resources or hasn’t done the planning,” Diamond continued. And yet, communities that don’t want industrial livestock facilities moving in “do have some authority to determine where the facilities are located,” she said.
In the U.S., about 9 billion chickens are produced annually for meat. West Virginia farms produced 75.5 million in 2019, which means it didn’t even make the top 10 poultry states. But poultry production tends to be concentrated in specific regions, and in West Virginia, where the landscape is dominated by mountainous terrain, that reality is more pronounced. As a result, in 2017, just five counties produced 80 percent of the state’s chickens. Hardy County is the undeniable poultry capital, accounting for 43 percent on its own.
Moorefield, the county seat, revolves around a quintessential small-town Main Street, except that just past the pizzeria and the Presbyterian church, right before the bend in the South Branch of the Potomac River, sits a cluster of three chicken processing plants. A blue banner hanging from the front fence says, “Now hiring! Apply within.”
With a fresh processing plant, a prepared foods plant, and a rendering plant all in one place, plus a network of contract farmers raising the birds to supply the plants, Pilgrim’s presence in the area is outsized. It is the largest employer in the county by far, and over the past decade, migrant and refugee workers have flocked to the town to fill jobs at the plant, transforming the county school system into the most diverse in the state, with 18 different languages spoken.
So it’s not surprising that a local developer named Robert Williams decided to put money into poultry. Williams is the son of Renick Williams, a household name in Moorefield. In 2006, the New York Times reported on how Renick (a former farmer) and his sons were selling off 5,000 acres of local land they owned amid a development boom, including a hayfield that went to Walmart.
It is unclear how Robert Williams and Jody Murphey linked up to build poultry CAFOs. Both declined interviews with Civil Eats and said that any questions related to their company should be directed to Pilgrim’s Pride. Pilgrim’s did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.
The Clean Water Act technically directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate CAFOs as a “point source” of pollution into waterways—but in most cases, the responsibility for regulation is delegated to the states. Additionally, a series of court decisions and rule changes over the past several decades have weakened permit requirements and created loopholes.
As a result, some states require CAFO operators to apply for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and to create nutrient management plans while tracking CAFO locations, while others have let permitting systems disappear altogether. A 2019 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analysis of EPA and state data, in fact, found that no permits or other data at all existed for more than half of the CAFOs the EPA estimated are operating in the country. Researchers could identify the permit status for only 24 percent.
In West Virginia specifically, a decision in a 2013 legal case likely triggered a halt to enforcement of CAFO permitting requirements at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). Construction permits are required at a local level to build any structure in a given location, and in Hardy County to date, CAFOs have been approved in agricultural zones with no further permitting or approvals required.
The Williams family has considerable influence in the area according to several residents, and Williams is a member of a committee generally tasked with evaluating construction permits according to local zoning laws before they are approved (or denied) by the county planner. He did not respond to an emailed question asking whether he recused himself from any discussions that occurred related to these projects.
In February 2020, the county planner approved a permit for the 19-house chicken facility in Old Fields, but County Commissioner Harold Michael didn’t learn about it until May, when he read a story about the construction in the local paper. “Here I am, the president of the County Commission, and I had no clue that there was even an application submitted or approved,” said Michael, whose term on the Commission has since ended. “Frankly, I was beyond agitated.”
Michael found out about the permit for the second site shortly after, once it was too late for him to do anything about either one. Meanwhile, in February, residents of the subdivision overlooking the first site in Old Fields watched as the first trucks rolled up to begin construction.
Steve Pendleton, whose home is about a half a mile from the site, launched the Concerned Citizens of Hardy County—which now has 200 members on Facebook—and reached out to SRAP. Since then, Pendleton and his group of local residents have been communicating and organizing on social media, where many have expressed being blindsided by the development. They began attending Hardy County Commission meetings and enlisted outside experts to help articulate their objections.
Pendleton moved to Moorefield in 2006 to retire in a place known for its natural beauty, and he is worried about how the operation will affect the value of his and his neighbors’ homes. He’s also concerned about odors and bright lights that dim the starry sky. But “health is the utmost concern,” he said.
Large chicken CAFOs accumulate large amounts waste. It releases ammonia and particulate matter, air pollutants that are circulated out of the barns using large fans. Both are associated with adverse health outcomes, but many factors impact whether the contaminants reach and affect residents. Some studies have shown higher risks of certain respiratory issues in areas where poultry CAFOs are concentrated. The waste can also contaminate waterways and groundwater during handling, leading to pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter in drinking water.
In January, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future sent Lee Lehman, the current president of the Hardy County Planning Commission, a letter outlining some of those risks. “We believe that expanding poultry operations in Hardy County will create similar hazards as those observed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, marked by an increase of contaminants and risks to soil, air, ground, and surface water quality and the health of Hardy County residents,” they wrote.
Walls, the riverkeeper, is concerned about water pollution, since any manure that gets into runoff from the two poultry complexes will likely end up in Anderson Run, a stream that is already listed as “impaired” due to fecal coliform bacteria (which comes from animal and human waste) by the WVDEP. Last October, Walls sent the agency a letter, noting that the sites do not have NPDES permits to discharge waste. (Williams did get stormwater discharge permits that apply to the construction of the CAFOs.)
“The scary part is that you have this 19-house operation without an NPDES permit. There’s no nutrient management plan that we’re aware of . . . and we’re worried that that’s going to set a precedent,” Walls said. “If Pilgrim’s Pride wants to develop more of these mega CAFOs and they know that they don’t have to have NDPES permits throughout the state, they could just go gangbusters.”
A representative from WVDEP told Civil Eats he would look into questions about permits for these sites and CAFOs throughout the state, but did not respond to subsequent emails.
“When I first heard about this, I thought there’s no way the state DEP or the EPA would approve such a concentration of houses with that many birds,” said Michael. Now, given the lack of environmental regulation, residents are looking to local zoning policy to halt the spread of the largest livestock operations.
In August, SRAP helped Pendleton’s group commission a report from Grobbel Environmental & Planning Associates, an environmental science and land use planning firm based in Michigan. In the evaluation, Christopher Grobbel outlined some of the potential community impacts, including air and water pollution. But he also concluded the CAFO construction permits were invalid based on Hardy County’s zoning laws.
Grobbel’s analysis was sent to the County Planning Commission, and in the meantime, the Commission had another outside group recommend an update to the county’s zoning laws. Rather than lumping CAFOs in with general agricultural zoning, the recommendations would have the county define CAFOs separately and could change the process so that developers building CAFOs would have to submit a plan that included both details on the project and permits from government agencies, and be involved in a public hearing before approval.
Pendleton said when the zoning changes were proposed, Pilgrim’s Pride executives began showing up for Commission meetings. Now, the Commission has created citizen and industry committees to review the proposals and submit their own recommendations before the Commission finalizes the updates. Given the Commission’s commitment to balancing citizen and industry input, it’s unclear how significant the changes will be.
At a March meeting where members of the committees were confirmed, county officials floated the idea of subjecting CAFOs to different zoning regulations based on their size and regulating how close large facilities could be built to homes and roads. The committees will make presentations this spring, and then Commission members will develop a proposed ordinance based on the recommendations. That will be followed by a public hearing and a vote. “This new ordinance is going to be the future of the county,” Pendleton said. “It has that much significance.”
Elsewhere in the country, residents have successfully exerted influence over CAFO siting and operations using local ordinances and zoning regulations. In 2015, SRAP helped concerned residents in York County, Pennsylvania pass a local health ordinance that required CAFOs to meet requirements such as increased spacing, installing exhaust fan filters to mitigate pollutants, and submitting to inspections based on their size. In Nebraska, where Gallus’ other large poultry CAFOs are operating, Costco had to build its processing plant in Fremont after residents in Nickerson, the original proposed site, fought a change to the local zoning that would have allowed the company to set up there.
“The changes need to come at the local level,” Walls said, while Michael also stressed the importance of the process for the community and farmers in the region. “We’re supportive of the poultry industry,” he said. Currently, however, most Hardy County chicken operations are small compared to in other regions. “When you have a million birds in one place and all the things that result from that, that’s industrial, and that’s a whole different thing,” he said. “The county ordinances and zoning should reflect that. I personally don’t want this to become a county of mega-farms.”
Still, some are concerned about doing anything that might compromise Pilgrim’s economic impact on the region. On Facebook, one Moorefield resident recently said he thought the “mega poultry houses” were necessary. “Otherwise, Pilgrim’s will be shut down, and this entire area will be swallowed up the same as the vacant coal towns in the southern part of the state,” he wrote.
It’s a comparison Pendleton refers to often. “They’re treating the poultry industry just like they treated the coal industry,” he said. “It’s always been jobs versus the environment and health, and people in communities are divided on it, too. There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
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