No love here for proposed Kansas Tyson Foods poultry plant

Tailgate Ranch manager Kirk Sours tends to land overlooking the proposed site of a Tyson Foods poultry plant south of Tonganoxie. Drone video provides a glimpse of the 233 acre site that now is home to soybeans and dense woods.
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Tailgate Ranch manager Kirk Sours tends to land overlooking the proposed site of a Tyson Foods poultry plant south of Tonganoxie. Drone video provides a glimpse of the 233 acre site that now is home to soybeans and dense woods.
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Government & Politics

Tyson Foods, Kansas officials answer town’s fears about secrecy, immigrants & chickens

By David Frese

dfrese@kcstar.com

September 14, 2017 07:10 AM

Since Tyson Foods announced on Sept. 5 its plans to build a $320 million poultry complex in Leavenworth County just south of Tonganoxie, many in the community of 5,000 feel like they’ve been hit by an earthquake, with ensuing questions and rumors reverberating like so many aftershocks.

Where will even a fraction of the new 1,600 employees live? How will their kids fit in schools that are nearing or at capacity? Will employees be paid enough to go without public assistance? What if they don’t speak English? Why was this such a secret? Have you smelled a meat processing plant?

The biggest issue for Tonganoxie Police Chief Jeff Brandau: People letting passions get the best of them.

The city council meeting the night of the announcement was particularly rancorous. Three days later, police cited a Linwood man for making threats against members of the Tonganoxie Chamber of Commerce.

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“Listen, I understand it’s an emotional issue, especially people who have lived here all their lives and they like the small rural atmosphere of the community,” Brandau said. “Change is tough on everybody, and it’s emotional. And keeping that to a reasonable level so it doesn’t get out of hand, that’s my biggest concern.”

Tyson officials have said they will have a town hall to hear concerns, but it’s been tough to find an appropriately sized venue for the crowds. More than 1,000 people gathered Saturday in the city’s largest park, where they signed petitions, heard speeches and bought red and white “No Tyson in Tongie” yard signs.

“We’re not going to fall into the hatred that’s going to drag us down,” Tyson opponent Jarret Pruitt told the crowd. “We are not promoting boycotts. We are not promoting any attacks on anyone who is against us, our local politicians, or anyone.”

Another big crowd is expected for a town hall with area legislators Friday, as many questions remain on a number of topics. Questions that affect not only Tonganoxie, but Lawrence, Johnson County, Missouri and beyond.

Why the secrecy?

Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey told The Star that the state of Kansas was contacted by a consultant for Tyson Foods this spring.

“That consultant had us sign non-disclosure agreements and was not prepared to share the name of the company with us,” McClaskey said. “We probably worked not knowing it was Tyson for the first four to six weeks.”

Since learning the company was Tyson, teams from Kansas have twice visited the company’s facilities or had meetings with officials in Springdale, Ark.

The first visit included officials from the departments of agriculture and commerce as well as Gov. Sam Brownback. McClaskey said the second visit involved Leavenworth County administrators and Tonganoxie city manager George Brajkovic.

Brajkovic said he drove down in late August with county development executive Steve Jack.

“It was to talk about the project, and my invite was to see where the city was in regard to sanitary sewer,” Brajkovic said. “I told them we were considering it but we hadn’t taken any formal action on anything.”

Some officials at state, county and local levels this summer were made aware of plans after they were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. All parties involved say this is standard operating procedure.

“Generally when Commerce works on an incentive package, that is confidential by statute,” said Commerce Secretary Nick Jordan. “This was handled the same way as with any company coming to Kansas. We don’t divulge much. In fact, we haven’t signed contracts with them yet, we haven’t signed papers. It stays confidential until we get all that process done.”

Landowners reportedly also were contacted through an intermediary who did not identify Tyson as the potential buyer. To avoid identifying Tyson as the company, the project was referred to in meetings of the Leavenworth County Commissioners as “Project Sunset.”

Tyson representative Worth Sparkman, who answered questions from The Star via email, said because Tyson is a publicly traded company, non-disclosure agreements “help prevent potential market rumors and maintain the integrity of non-public information until we are in a position to convey full and accurate information to our shareholders and the investing public.”

Environmental impact

Suzanne Regier, an architect who lives in the area, said the proposed plant has to be a concern not only for Tonganoxie but also for nearby Lawrence and the University of Kansas.

“I’m just concerned the air quality is going to be such that people aren’t going to want to go there anymore,” she said. “And that it’s going to destroy the environment of going outside to eat or just walk up and down the street in the evening and just enjoy the ambiance of it. And how many are going to decide they aren’t going to KU because it stinks?”

Sparkman said Tyson “plants and feed mills are governed by the requirements of the Clean Air Act. We work to meet environmental regulatory requirements including any regulations related to odor.”

In 2013, Tyson agreed to pay the federal government $3.95 million for violations of the Clean Air Act in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. Sparkman said when the company’s actions have caused environmental harm, restitution has often included payments to cover remediation, compensation for lost or damaged resources and “supplemental projects intended to prevent or reverse environmental harm.”

But it’s not just the air quality. Kerry Holton farms a couple of miles north and east from the planned site. He said the watershed from the area around the plant would eventually dump into the Kansas River at Linwood.

“You’ll have growers out here like spokes in a wheel in every direction,” Holton said. “Johnson County better get ready, because it’s going to be in their water.”

Sparkman said most of the water used to produce food in Tyson plants is returned to streams and rivers after being properly treated, and those wastewater treatment systems are government-regulated.

“We’ll collaborate closely with the state and federal agencies charged with the protection of water to develop permits designed to cover our uses, and those permits will inform the design of our wastewater treatment facility,” he said.

The Leavenworth County complex would be the first facility Tyson has built from the ground up in 20 years. Kansas Commerce Secretary Nick Jordan said state officials were told that it would use state-of-the-art technology in reducing waste and odor.

“Tyson’s comment was water will be clean, there’ll be no smell,” Jordan said. “I think the governor did a good job of holding their feet to the fire.”

Feeder farms

Holton’s concerns about growers, feeder farms and poultry suppliers are particularly apt because Tyson expects to contract with between 100 and 200 poultry producers in a 50-mile radius from the plant. That area includes Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, Liberty on the Missouri side; Overland Park, Leavenworth, and Topeka on the Kansas side.

“They’re very adamant that you can only have a maximum of six (poultry) barns on any one property, because they’re not interested in facilities that are just 20 or 30 barns on one site, for both welfare and disease concerns,” McClaskey said.

State regulators will have authority over specific locations, but Sparkman said Tyson will not contract with any farmer whose houses do not meet their guidelines.

“Those guidelines include required setback distances from residences, schools and churches,” Sparkman said. “Tyson will also provide farmers with information on recommended best management practices designed to mitigate any potential odor issues.”

On The Star’s Facebook page, one commenter who lives in Sedalia, where Tyson has a poultry plant, wrote: “I’m a broiler grower for Tyson in Missouri. Great opportunity for locals.”

Employees, their families

At other Tyson plants, the company has drawn a large portion of its workforce from immigrant labor, so much so that people might not recognize the community in a few years after the plant comes to the area, said Craig Wolfe, an activist and retiree who is volunteering his time to the Citizens Against Project Sunset group in Tonganoxie. It has more than 1,500 followers and nearly 5,000 members on Facebook.

“It will change the character of the region,” Wolfe said.

The immigration and racial issue has come up several times in social media comments to The Star’s coverage, though not necessarily from people who live in the area.

Tonganoxie-area ranch manager Kirk Sours said those who think the opposition is due to a fear of immigrants are off the mark.

“It’s not about race, it’s not about ethnicity,” Sours said. “It’s a little bit about culture, because there’s going to be a culture shock for all people involved — it is for immigrants anyway.”

Tonganoxie school officials say the high school is at capacity and the grade and middle schools are nearing it. Rep. Jim Karleskint, a former educator, said he was particularly concerned about the effects an influx of new students might have on education in the area, especially if there’s a large number of immigrants in the Tyson plant workforce.

“I’ve worked with schools that have populations that support these animal operations and it impacts the instruction of the children when not all of them can speak English,” Karleskint, a Republican, told The Star. “That concern wasn’t voiced (at Saturday’s rally), but it has been voiced with me.”

McClaskey said she was a little surprised by the education questions because agricultural department research and labor department data show the workers may already be within a 30-mile radius.

“We didn’t see the impact being on the schools as significant as the public is seeing it, because we think the majority of the workforce is already in the area,” she said.

That data helped Tyson decide the Tonganoxie site was a good fit.

Sparkman said Leavenworth County supplied them with statistics that showed an available workforce of 1.2 million people within a 30-40 minute drive, with about 37,000 people looking for jobs in the $10 to $15 per hour range. Sparkman said hourly wages at the new plant will range from $13 to $15 per hour with some skilled labor jobs paying more than $20 per hour.

“We would hope to hire from as many local communities as possible, and we anticipate some team members will also commute,” Sparkman said.

Sparkman also said he couldn’t speculate on the needs of the county’s schools, but Tyson has given back to communities. He said in the 2016 fiscal year, Tyson donated about 9,600 pounds of food in Kansas and made more than $100,000 in charitable contributions and $150,000 in college scholarships to Kansas employees and family members.

Taxes, incentives

Scott Elliott, a former corporate lawyer who moved to Tonganoxie to take a job teaching at nearby Kansas City Kansas Community College, said he’s concerned the working conditions at the plant are not representative of what people want.

“There’s a difference between a good job and a bad job,” Elliott said. “But the practical objection I have is the millions of dollars in tax breaks and then the various forms of infrastructure that Tyson gets a free ride on. They can get a 10-year hiatus on taxes and then they walk and they abandon a community. And there’s nothing you can do.”

In addition to the still undisclosed incentive package from the state, Tyson officials said they hope to benefit from the state job creation fund PEAK and have been in discussions with Leavenworth County for a partial property tax abatement. The county and/or state could choose to include some clawback provisions to recoup some funds should Tyson decide to leave after a period of time.

But Tyson officials make no promises of longevity in the community, Sparkman said.

“There are no guarantees in life or in business, but Tyson Foods has been in operation since 1935 and this location represents a part of our strategy to grow and sustain,” Sparkman said. “This is a significant investment by our company to meet demand for one of the world’s most popular, affordable and sustainable proteins: chicken. With an annual worldwide growth in population of 1 percent, we see this plant as helping us keep that population fed.”

If not here, then where?

Commerce secretary Jordan said the changes in zoning for the area still have to be approved at the county level. If the Leavenworth County proposal falls through, McClaskey said the state fully intends to explore other areas in the state.

“We still believe this is the best location in regard to meeting the requirements Tyson has for a new location and creating additional agricultural growth in northeast Kansas,” she said. “But if in some case this doesn’t go through, we would from the state perspective work very diligently to find another location in Kansas. We certainly would hate to lose the project from the state.”

From the company and state perspective, the site outside Tonganoxie is ideal. It’s about four miles from town. Land is available. There’s easy access to the I-70 and the Kansas Turnpike; the state, county and city worked together for more than a decade to get an exit in this region for the very purpose of industrial growth.

But concerns linger.

“I have serious reservations, not just personally but from my position politically,” said Rep. Karleskint. “Nobody’s talked to me that’s in favor of it. I’m not going to deny that it’s good for the state, but I don’t represent the state, I represent the people of Tonganoxie.”

Ranch manager Sours said if it happens, there’ll definitely be some adjustments for everyone.

“We’re a semi-suburban area out here, the whole county is. We do have agriculture, but it’s mostly small,” he said.

“We understand there’s going to be development. You’re just not going to stop it. It’s going to happen, and, in some cases, it probably should happen. The short-sightedness of this venture is probably what bothers me the most. This county just has no idea what it’s going to be like.”

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

Friday

Kansas State Sen. Tom Holland, and Reps. Jim Karleskint and Willie Dove are hosting a forum about the proposed Tyson Foods poultry complex in southern Leavenworth County. 6:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15, at Tonganoxie’s Chieftain Park.

Q&A with Tyson Foods

The following is a Q&A with Tyson Foods representative Worth Sparkman about the proposed poultry complex in southern Leavenworth County. The questions were submitted and answered via email, per the request of Tyson Foods. The text is presented in its entirety.

Q. Many are concerned about the smell of a poultry plant. How will Tyson Foods’ proposed complex maintain or better our current air quality in the neighboring communities?

A. Our plants and feed mills are governed by the requirements of the Clean Air Act. We work to meet environmental regulatory requirements including any regulations related to odor.

Q. How will the new complex maintain or better the current water quality of its neighbors? How will the water from the plant be treated and re-used? Will waste run-off find its way to other communities downstream? Will waste in any way affect, enter into or contaminate the area’s drinking water?

A. We use water so the food we produce is safe for consumers. Water is a critical natural resource that we work to preserve and protect. We have water management programs and employ experts to help us get better at how we use and manage water throughout our operations. Most of the water used to produce food is returned to streams and rivers after it’s been properly treated by wastewater treatment systems which are government-regulated and permitted. In this case, we’ll collaborate closely with the state and federal agencies charged with the protection of water to develop permits designed to cover our uses, and those permits will inform the design of our wastewater treatment facility. More about how we work to be responsible uses of water is available at our sustainability report.

Q. From where do you anticipate recruiting future employees?

A. Our research says there are plenty of residents within a 30-minute drive of the location who would like to take advantage of our high wages and benefits to keep it fully staffed. A survey initiated by Leavenworth County supplied the following labor statistics: There is an available workforce of 1.2 million people within a 30-40 minute drive. Additionally, there about 37,000 people looking for jobs in the $10 to $15 per hour range within a 30-minute drive. We would hope to hire from as many local communities as possible, and we anticipate some Team Members will also commute. Tyson Foods’ hourly wages will range from $13 to $15 per hour with some skilled labor jobs paying more than $20 per hour.

Q. How will you monitor and ensure on-the-job safety of employees?

A. We commit to a goal of zero worker injuries and illnesses and will strive for a 15% year-over-year reduction company-wide beginning this year. In fiscal 2016, we reduced our Total OSHA Recordable Incident Rate by 19.4%, compared to our fiscal 2015. Safety councils are in place at all plants and include hourly team members. Tyson will encourage the participation of hourly team members to be representative of the plant workforce at each facility including job categories, gender and demographics. Earlier this year, we announced additional initiatives to expand programs to support our employees.

Q. How will Tyson help the surrounding communities deal with resource shortfalls, whether they be in additional classroom space in schools or city or county infrastructure needs?

A. We work to be a good neighbor in each community where we operate. Every community has different needs. We can’t speculate what needs Tonganoxie or Leavenworth County will have two years or more from now. We can tell you, however, that in most communities where we operate, our plant management live in the town and participate as citizens. They’re invested in the success of the community like all residents. In our 2016 fiscal year, we donated more than 9,600 pounds of food to help curb food insecurity in Kansas. In addition, we made more than $100,000 in charitable contributions and more than $150,000 in college scholarships to our team members and their family members.

Q. In terms of operation, how will this facility be different from other Tyson facilities in Kansas? How will it be the same?

A. This will be the first poultry complex Tyson Foods’ will operate in Kansas, so it will be different than all the rest. Tyson currently has six facilities in Kansas: one beef processing plant, one further-processed beef plant, three prepared foods facilities, and a distribution center. We have jobs located in Lyon, Finney, Reno, and Johnson counties. We employ around 5,770 team members in Kansas, and purchase cattle and hogs from 333 Kansas suppliers. Currently we have a statewide economic impact of around $2.46 billion. That number is calculated using wages, property and sales and use taxes, utilities, cattle and hog supplier pay, grain purchases, diesel, charitable and food donations, and college scholarships.

Q. What will be the average wages of workers at the plant? Please give a sampling that delineates as much as possible among management, service, technicians, etc.

A. Hourly wages will range from $13 to $15 per hour with some skilled labor jobs paying more than $20 per hour. There will also be a significant number of high paying management jobs. Tyson Foods offers competitive pay, benefits, 401(k) and opportunity for advancement.

Q. It’s the understanding of many that Tyson Foods will utilize area poultry farms as suppliers of chickens. If this is true, how will you police and monitor those suppliers so they, too, are being environmentally responsible?

A. Independent poultry farmers and state regulators have authority over the specific locations for poultry houses but Tyson will not contract with any farmer whose houses do not meet our minimum guidelines for the siting of poultry houses. Those guidelines include required set back distances from residences, schools and churches. Tyson will also provide farmers with information on recommended best management practices designed to mitigate any potential odor issues.

Q. Tyson has paid a high amount of fines for environmental violations. How has the company also rectified the damages caused in cases where fines were levied or settlements were reached?

A. Each case is different, so if you’re interested in a specific matter, please identify it and we’ll attempt to address it. In some cases where we have been fined there was no actual damage to the environment. When our actions have caused environmental harm, the resolution of those cases often include payments to cover the costs of any necessary remediation, compensation for the value of any lost or damaged resources, or funding for supplemental projects intended to prevent or reverse environmental harm.

Q. What guarantee does the surrounding community have that Tyson will be there in 20 or 30 years?

A. There are no guarantees in life or in business, but Tyson Foods has been in operation since 1935 and this location represents a part of our strategy to grow and sustain. This is a significant investment by our company to meet demand for one of the world’s most popular, affordable and sustainable proteins: chicken. With an annual worldwide growth in population of 1 percent, we see this plant as helping us keep that population fed.

Q. What arrangements, agreements or funds have you entered into, received or paid to the State of Kansas, Leavenworth County or the City of Tonganoxie or their representatives?

A. We had discussions with the Kansas Department of Commerce and hope to benefit from the programs available in Kansas. We plant to apply for benefits under the Job Creation Fund, Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP). We have also been in discussions with Leavenworth County for a partial property tax abatement.

Q. Why was this a secret process up to now and why should people in this area trust the company to be transparent in its dealings?

A. Non-disclosure agreements are standard operating business practices. As a publicly-traded company, we also use non-disclosure agreements to help prevent potential market rumors and maintain the integrity of non-public information until we are in a position to convey full and accurate information to our shareholders and the investing public.

Q. When will Tyson executives be meeting with community members to hear and address concerns?

A. We’ve not yet set a date.

David Frese, dfrese@kcstar.com