Tyson Foods’ expansion in west Tennessee is pitting longtime farmers against one of the nation’s biggest protein suppliers

By: and - May 6, 2021 6:45 am

BEECH BLUFF, TN — Larry Blankenship and his wife, Monica, lived in a trailer on his father’s farm for more than 30 years while saving for a home of their own.

They finally did in 2019, moving into a pretty one-story ranch built where their trailer used to be. 

But their joy was short-lived; the weekend they moved in, a line of backhoes and construction equipment rumbled past their driveway to the property next door, breaking ground on what will soon become a massive chicken farming operation.

Three enormous chicken houses—metal-roofed barns about as long as the Washington Monument is tall—are now under construction a stone’s throw away from their back porch. Each will house a steady cycle of at least 25,000 birds at a time and the waste they produce —an equivalent to the urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans in each barn, according to estimates by the Sierra Club.

The Blankenships worry about the smells coming from chicken waste, the impact of the waste leaching into local creeks, streams and rivers that supply their water and the eyesore of industrial farming next door.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Larry Blankenship, 78, surveying the barns stacked in rows a few hundred feet across his back yard, separated by a short stretch of grass from his soybean fields.

“We’ve been told we can’t do anything about this. We must’ve talked to 10 to 15 lawyers. We talked to the city. Nobody seems to want to help us. Nobody seems to want to go against Tyson. I eventually called Tyson and told them, ‘you’ve ruined my life.’”

Gov Bill Lee dedicates a Tyson plant in Humbolt, Tennessee with plant workers in April. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Monica Blankenship said the couple has wavered over speaking publicly. She works as a nurse for a health company with a strict media policy. Larry Blankenship works for the city. They’re both afraid of being fired.

Scores of chicken operations like these have sprung up in west Tennessee in just the past three years, proliferating as Republican lawmakers have led successful efforts to remove environmental oversight and hamstring local officials from enforcing public health rules, while the administration of Gov. Bill Lee has offered millions in economic incentive packages for Tyson’s meat processing plants. 

In Wisconsin, Tyson operates meat processing plants in Green Bay and New London. The company also previously operated a plant in Jefferson that processed pepperoni and salami. Tyson closed the Jefferson plant in 2016, costing the jobs of about 400 workers. 

There are CAFOs in Wisconsin, but the Department of Natural Resources (DNR); Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and local governments still have some say over where they can be built. 

The DNR retains permitting authority over the water pollution created by CAFOs — though that authority has been challenged by Republicans and is at issue in a case currently in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In that case, conservation groups are requesting the DNR review a permit that allowed a farm to add more than 3,000 cows to its herd — which ultimately contaminated the groundwater. 

Wisconsin municipalities and DATCP, unlike in Tennessee, also retain some control over the regulation of CAFOs and where they can be sited. But the issue has seen intense political fights in recent years. Last year, the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance — a lobbying organization for CAFOs — and the powerful business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, nearly succeeded in ramming through a law that would have relaxed regulations on CAFOs by state and local governments. 

A coalition of Democratic lawmakers, conservation groups and the Wisconsin Farmers Union have joined together to fight the proliferation of CAFOs, finding common ground in the desire to protect the environment and the smaller family farms that have historically made up the state’s dairy industry. Some Wisconsin farmers have also consciously decided to eschew large factory farms in favor of more regenerative and environmentally friendly practices. The experience of rural people fighting Tyson chicken farms in Tennessee is a cautionary tale.

In 2017 Tennessee lawmakers eliminated clean water permit requirements for the farms, known as Concentrated Live Animal Feed Operations, or CAFOs. In 2018, they relaxed regulations of large scale operations even further. Then last month the Legislature preemptively stripped local health boards of the right to regulate the operations on public health grounds. 

Tennessee hog, cattle and chicken farmers have backed the measures, saying they want to be free from intrusive government regulations. The arguments behind deregulation efforts have been grounded in Tennessee’s history as a Right to Farm state, a reference to a 1982 law enacted to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits by city or suburban dwellers who moved to rural communities, then protested about the noise, odor and pesticides from farms next door.  

In this case, local farmers say, the nuisance is coming to them. And there’s little they can do to stop it. 

Some farmers have gotten creative in thwarting would-be Tennessee chicken farm operators —many arriving from out of state to respond to Tyson’s need for a steady supply of chicken meat at its processing plants.

Other farmers have simply left.

At the April 8 grand opening of Tyson’s latest, $425 million processing plant in Humboldt —made possible, in part, by a $20 million state economic incentive, Lee responded to a question about community concerns over the environmental and quality of life impact of Tyson chicken suppliers on existing local farmers:

“I think the environment is incredibly important to all of us in Tennessee, and it certainly is to Tyson,” he said. “They are a national leader in food production and in doing so in a sustainable way and a responsible way, and we’re proud to have that great a company with that track record in sustainability to be a part of our communities.”

Tyson officials responded after publication of this story with a statement that said:

“We work hard to be a good community partner and believe the farmers who raise chickens for us also strive to operate responsibly.  We’ve been working with chicken farmers for 85 years and spend millions of dollars every year to pay them to raise chickens for us. As part of their contract, they agree to comply with federal, state and local laws and we expect them to follow University of Tennessee Extension Service setback guidelines for the location of new chicken houses, ensuring a minimum distance from neighbors.”

“In addition, each farm has a nutrient management plan, which works to ensure proper application of nutrients to maximize nutrient efficiency and minimize nutrient runoff. The nutrient management plan details the amount and timing of litter application. Poultry litter supplies nutrients to the crops in the area. Poultry litter will replace some commercial fertilizer already being used in the area. The nutrient management plan is based upon the soil conditions and nutrient needs of the land where the litter will be applied. The plan includes use of best management practices.”

The company said it hired a consulting firm to create Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plans.

A “putrid” smell

Just north of Beech Bluff in Weakley County, 16 mammoth chicken houses sit right across the fence marking the Burton farm property line, including the home of 58-year-old Jerry Burton, who is a fifth generation Tennessee farmer.

The blue-sided barns, each adhering to the 600 feet length required by Tyson of its contract farmers, went up last year.  The odor from the excrement generated by roughly 400,000 chickens down the street first drove Jerry Burton and his son, Will, from working in an open-air barn where they’d typically fix farm equipment to other property they own. 

“The smell was so putrid we had to go inside,” Will Burton, 28, said. 

By last fall, even inside structures were unbearable. Jerry Burton abandoned his two-bedroom home just a few hundred feet from the barns. He had installed HEPA filters to his A/C units, but the unrelenting odors permeated the house, making it uninhabitable.

The chicken farm next door is operated and owned by Feathers Ranch, Inc. which bought the property after a flurry of recent property transactions that is typical for the majority of the land bought by out-of-state chicken entrepreneurs who are moving into west Tennessee to become Tyson suppliers.

It was bought in 2012 for $208,615 from a trust set up by longtime farmers of the property after a death in the family by Donald Perkins, an area farmer, according to Weakley County property records and state Comptroller records.  

In 2018, Perkins sold it for $635,000. The new owners, John Le and Hieu Tran (respectively from Texas and Iowa) then transferred the property into a limited liability company, according to property records.

Its current appraised value is $6.2 million. 

The value of the farm, adjacent to the Burtons’, has resulted in significantly higher taxes for his father, said Will Burton. (Burton, in addition to being a farmer, is a songwriter and musician named 2019 Tennessee Music Awards Songwriter of the Year.)

Jerry Burton has put his farm, which once was nicknamed “Paradise,” on the market. He plans to farm other family property elsewhere in the county.

“If a Tyson farmer had come asking to buy us out before, we would have run them out of there with a stick,” Will Burton said. Now, they’ll sell to any bidder for the right price. The property has yet to receive a single offer.

“It’s not like I’m anti-Tyson or anti-free enterprise or against anyone really trying to make a living,” he said. “But there’s a place for that and it’s not in the middle of where people live. I get a big kick about people saying they support Tyson because they support local farmers. That’s a joke.”

Tyson Foods itself does not operate chicken farms. 

Instead, the company enters into contracts with chicken farmers, who agree to build barns according to Tyson specifications, raise chicks supplied by Tyson, feed them grain supplied by Tyson, sell them at rates set by Tyson and abide by all Tyson rules, which can change to require upgrades at the farm owner’s expense. 

“Tyson owns everything but the farm,” said Craig Watts, a former contract poultry farmer in North Carolina who is now field operations director for The Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, which provides resources to local residents protesting CAFOs.

“That’s not an accident,” he said. “The land is the least profitable part of the business.”

Farm operators put their property into limited liability companies to avoid legal liability, he said. All anyone needs to get started as a Tyson contract farmer is a bank note showing proof of the loan approval, purchase land and build barns, he said. 

The prospects draw plenty of takers, many of them first-time farmers from New York, Texas, Iowa, Mississippi and elsewhere leaving behind urban jobs to embark on new lives as land owners in rural America.  In Weakley County, where the Burton farm is located, land for 12 of the 17 chicken farms that have sprung into operation in the past three years were purchased by out-of-staters, state records show.

Among them is Andy Le, who currently works at a corporate job in Austin, Texas. 

Along with his father and mother, Le, his wife and newborn are moving to Beech Bluff to operate eight chicken barns. 

“It’s an opportunity to live in the countryside and spend more time with family,” said Ye, who is 30 and among the growing number of Vietnamese-Americans operating chicken farms in Tennessee.

“It sounded like a good opportunity. I like the idea of getting up early and working hard, then finishing up by 1 o’clock. I like the idea of sitting on my porch. It seems like my type of life.”

‘No Tyson’ groups proliferate

In Henderson County, one county over from Weakley, Rick Taylor lives on the 200-acre property his family has farmed since 1879 along with his wife and three adopted special-needs children. 

On one side of his property a longtime neighbor has erected two chicken farms. The neighbor used to farm part of Taylor’s property until the barns went up, Taylor said. That’s when Taylor stopped leasing his land to his neighbor.

“It’s strained a lot of friendships, I can tell you that,” said Taylor.

On the other side of his homestead, on a hill overlooking the home he built with a wrap-around porch and chickens roaming the front lawn, is a 180-acre property that was divided and sold to three out-of-state residents who, Taylor learned in 2018, planned to build eight chicken houses apiece.

That’s when Taylor got angry. 

A ‘No Tyson’ sign is on the street when Taylor and other farmers live who are leery of Tyson. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The proliferation of chicken barns in west Tennessee has spurred residents across counties to band together on Facebook pages like “No Tyson in Henderson County,” “No Tyson in Beech Bluff,” “No Tyson in Madison County” and “No Tyson in Gibson County.” The groups post videos and photographs of barns and public roads battered by steady streams of 18-wheelers, alert one another to new properties sold and urge people to show up at county meetings.

Few people were seen wearing masks in the downtown square of Lexington, in Henderson County, earlier this month. But Taylor makes a point of wearing one for the sake of his five-year-old son, Frederick, who uses a tracheostomy to breathe. He feared the stench of chicken waste, and the particulates they contain, would affect his son’s health and his family’s quality of life. The industrial-looking barns are out of character with the farming his family has done for seven generations, he said.  

Taylor and other members of the No Tyson movement strategized, attending community meetings and talked to their elected officials. 

Ultimately Taylor decided the only way to stop the barns was to buy the land himself. 

“I prayed about it then told my wife one night ‘I’m all in.’ I put all my land as collateral,” Taylor said. 

Nick Mock, another member of the No Tyson Group who recently moved to Tennessee with his wife, helped Taylor with the downpayment on the land last year, convincing the owners that the community did not want chicken farms there. 

And then the two divided the 190 acres into 15 different tracks. They sold 50 acres to the grandson of the original owner of the land, Rick Mock kept 20 acres to build his own home, and the rest of the land was subdivided into different tracts whose configurations would make them too small or unworkable for the roughly seven-acre minimum needed for a chicken operation. 

“Tornadoes have come through here, barns have come down, but the one constant has been the land,” Taylor said. “I intend to keep it that way.”

‘Industry disguised as agriculture’

James Lavel, a retired Navy commander, and Jackie Washburn, a paralegal, have been two of the most vocal opponents of Tyson chicken farms in Henderson County, speaking at community meetings and organizing opposition.

“This is not agriculture as anyone here knows it,” Lavel said. “It’s industry disguised as agriculture.”

Last September, the pair showed up at the Henderson County Commission meeting. Washburn, drawing on her legal research skills, had found that boards of health in Missouri were able to regulate CAFO’s effects on public health. Could Henderson County establish a board and equip them with authority to ensure there were no health violations?

“Before we could even get in front of that, the state Legislature drafted a bill,” barring local health boards from regulating agriculture, Lavel said. In Madison County, No Tyson advocates had lobbied for similar oversight.

“A podunk county found one loophole in the law, and they said let’s rip that up” said Washburn.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.