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FEATURE ‌ Chickens and their Biscuits

A legislative bill deregulating the poultry industry has some smelling green while others just smell dookie

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Why did the poultry bill cross the road? According to state Sen. Phil Leventis (D-Lee and Sumter), "to usurp power from local governments."

The controversial bill — which became law without the governor's signature on May 30 — addresses the distance a poultry farm must be set back from rivers, creeks, and private property. Previously, local county governments had the authority to set the boundary requirements. Now, the Department of Heath and Environment Control (DHEC) — a state agency — will determine setbacks and numerous other agricultural regulations. The bill has raised concerns about local control, environmental safety, property rights, and that very distinct poultry odor problem.

"The bill has little to do with farming," says Leventis. "This was a great grab for control by the Republican-controlled Congress away from local governments."

In the past few years 13 counties have passed zoning laws to restrict the growth of poultry operations with setback requirements — including Berkeley, Horry, and Orangeburg counties.

Bob Giles, environmental law attorney and chair of the South Carolina Sierra Club, says, "Because DHEC has been so ineffective in protecting locals and regulating the location of these large poultry growing facilities, people did the most democratic thing they could — they got their local counties to protect them."

All 13 counties set regulations with stricter standards than those set by DHEC, which requires a setback of only 200 feet from a property line and 1,000 feet from a residence. DHEC has no regulations concerning public property such as parks and churches. Most of the county regulations have a minimum setback of 1,500 feet, and national industry standards are even greater, putting a quarter-mile boundary between property lines, a half mile between the barns and residences, and at least one mile between the poultry farms and public properties.

"Counties were passing ordinances that outlawed agriculture," counters Reggie Hall, spokesperson for the South Carolina Farm Bureau. "The distances required were too great. There was no place to locate the livestock. The main focus was for the state government to acknowledge DHEC was the regulation and permit authority."

Hall's employer, the South Carolina Farm Bureau, was a major proponent of the bill. In cooperation with the Poultry Federation and South Carolina Coalition for Rural Opportunity and Progress, the Bureau spent at least $700,000 lobbying the legislature in the two years prior to the 2006 session. Expenditures for this session have not yet been reported.

"The skids were greased for this bill," says lawyer Giles. Less than 24 hours' notice of the legislative vote was given to opponents of the bill, while industry representatives had been warned well in advance. "They were explicit about their interest. They wanted to make money for the big poultry companies and get the local communities away from nipping at their heels."

State Rep. Joe Neal (D-Richland and Sumter) characterizes the new law as a violation of home rule. "For us to dictate to residents what the regulation distance for agricultural factories is takes away the rights of property owners to protect their property. It is undemocratic and elitist."

Neal continues, "The other problem with this bill is that it opens the door legislatively for these regulations to be relaxed on other forms of agriculture such as hog farming, and these minimal setbacks limit the ability of the private property owner to act against these intrusions."

Deregulation opens the door not only for hog farms, but for large industrial poultry farms to move into South Carolina, and poultry is big business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 1,107 egg-laying farms, 426 broiler farms, and 331 turkey farms in the state. Poultry operations account for three of the state's 10 largest cash crops — chickens in the number one slot, turkeys in third, and egg-laying chickens in ninth. In Orangeburg County alone, poultry farming generates over $7.5 million a year in gross income for area farmers. Broiler farms throughout the state bring in $500 million per year in cash receipts. The largest farms raise more than 500,000 chickens annually and represent all of the largest poultry companies in the country — Amick Farms, Columbia Farms, Gold Kist, and Perdue.

Mac McLeod, a turkey farmer from Camden and member of the South Carolina Poultry Federation, supported passage of the bill. McLeod raises approximately 28,000 turkeys annually for Prestige Farms. He argues that the legislation was necessary for the small farmers as well. "Most of the farms I deal with are smaller family farms," he says. "Smaller farms have to diversify. By putting tighter restrictions it didn't allow people to diversify unless they owned lots of land. Most of these farms, poultry is supplemental, and in agriculture you put your life in the ground and pray to God it is a good growing season. Having poultry spreads out your income because you get paid for each flock. It's a steady thing and it helps pay the bills in the tight times."

While the loosened regulations may assist struggling small farms, they also create opportunities for industrial farms to expand, and effectively send a calling card to industrial growers throughout the country looking for regulation-friendly locations to expand their businesses.

"We are opening up our borders to an explosion of agricultural factories," says Rep. Neal, "and as a consequence we are intensifying the impact of these operations on our environment."

According to Rep. Neal, some of these farms produce as much waste as a city and put contaminants into the drinking water. One Orangeberg chicken farm is reported by DHEC to produce 540 tons of manure each year.

"Poultry farms carry with them risk of arsenic contamination, nitrates, and biological contaminants from dead bodies and manure," says Rep. Neal. And this is to say nothing of the fumes.

"Chickens die when exposed to the fumes they produce inside their own barns and we ventilate that into the air," says environmental lawyer Giles. "People have had horrible experiences as a result of living near these farms — serious health effects, lives are changed. People are forced to shut their windows and pull their shades, they have to abandon their gardening and outdoor picnicking. In Oconee County, one of these farms is located near a church where it disrupts festivals and funerals. Another is located within a half-mile of 174 private residences where property owners have suffered health problems due to the air pollution."

Hall, of the Farm Bureau Federation, answers these accusations by saying, "The question was 46 different DHECs or yield to the tightest livestock regulations in the country — South Carolina has some of the toughest."

"That is just B.S.," says Giles in response to this claim.

DHEC's standards for permitting agricultural animal facilities were most recently updated in June of 2002, when avian flu was not yet a legitimate health threat and the poultry industry in South Carolina had not exploded at the rate at which it has today.

Camden farmer McLeod feels that the public should not be worried about potential health threats or environmental concerns. "We wash everything and start with a barn as clean as your house and there is very little fly, odor, or health problems. You dip your feet to disinfect them before you go in and after you leave, just in case there is any risk of cross-contamination. It is very sanitary, and it is monitored very closely by the poultry companies and by DHEC. Every farmer would be foolish not to monitor to a very high degree their vital security."

While McLeod's one-barn turkey farm may be cleanly and efficiently run, the larger more industrial operations make an environmental impact that is more difficult to manage. According to Giles, the commercial farms have a minimum of four barns. Each barn is 500 feet long, 50 feet wide, and holds around 30,000 chickens. Finding enough farm fields to dump the sheer amount of manure to prevent run-off and water contamination is proving very difficult. "The only protection we have is to locate these facilities as far away from where people live as possible," says Giles.

McLeod is insulted by some of the comments made in the press about poultry farmers. "We live on and with the land, we are the best stewards of our environment. It is our livelihood, we don't want to see anything happen to it."

Despite McLeod's best intentions — and those of the thousands of South Carolina farmers like him — big business may have different plans for South Carolina's stewardship. As Giles says, "Historically, we sacrifice values and protections for economic gains."

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