Chris Petersen came to Sedgwick County on Saturday with a mission.
“I’m here because I don’t want Kansas to become another Iowa,” he told to a crowd of about 75 people at Linwood Park Recreation Center wanting to learn more about the effects a Tyson plant would have on the community if it were built here.
Petersen maintains a 30-sow Berkshire herd on his farm in Iowa. He’s also an advocate with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project in Iowa. Petersen and Don Stull, who has studied the meat and poultry industry for 30 years, were invited to speak at the first Tyson plant opposition meeting held Saturday morning by the group #NoTysonSedgwickCounty.
The group formed after the announcement that Sedgwick County is one of three finalists for a massive Tyson Foods processing plant. In addition to Sedgwick County, Cloud County in north-central Kansas and Montgomery County in southeast Kansas are finalists.
Stull said he’s spent time interviewing packing plant employees from across the country who have described deplorable working conditions, injuries, courtroom battles, healthcare problems and issues with police from growing communities with low-wage jobs. He said the work is demanding, dangerous and exposes employees to loud noises, dangerous machinery and hazardous chemicals.
The company announced in April they are “committed to expanded efforts to create a better workplace at its production facilities.”
By doing that, a news release says they’ve committed to a goal of a 15 percent year-over-year reduction in workplace injuries and illnesses, a 10 percent year-to-year improvement in retention, and plan to hire 25 or more poultry plant trainers among several other missions.
Tyson promises economic growth and jobs but neither improve quality of life, Stull said.
He argued that Tyson would have to bring in employees from areas outside of Sedgwick County, and he’s seen cases where newcomers to packing cities had to get housing assistance or live in shelters due to low wage and high turnover. He also argued that the $10 to $15 hourly wage isn’t enough.
“Someone making $10 an hour … they’re below the poverty level for a family of four,” he said, explaining their children would be eligible for free or reduced lunches at school.
Petersen said he came at the problem of large meat packing plants from a grassroots perspective. Asked by an audience member what happens to independent farmers in the wake of plants like Tyson’s, Peterson said, “They’re basically gone.”
“Contract farmers are taking over farming,” he said. “Can you even call it farming anymore? I can’t.”
Tyson said they’re continuing to evaluate their options in Kansas, and other states have expressed support for the project.
“No matter where we decide to build, we intend to do our best to answer questions residents will understandably have about the project,” the company said in a statement Saturday. “In fact, we support their engagement in the process. We hope they’ll keep an open mind before making a judgment on a project that will generate 1,600 jobs, an estimated annual economic benefit of $150 million and the opportunity for area farmers to diversify their farms.”
Audience members asked a number of questions after about two hours of information given by Stull and Petersen.
▪ A woman asked what arguments can be used to reach politicians.
“What you people have going for you is numbers,” Petersen said. “… You gotta put fear in them that they might lose the next election.”
▪ What does a large plant do to highway traffic?
“You will see a tremendous increase of truck traffic,” Stull said. Trucks will have to move to and from the hundreds of chicken houses and the packing plant, he said.
Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said there will be some increase in traffic.
“We work with the state transportation department to work on routes that use preexisiting infrastructure,” he said.
▪ How will Tyson dispose of the waste?
“Chicken litter will be spread onto farm fields as fertilizer,” Stull said, explaining it will smell. “If you haven’t smelled chicken litter … it’s a whole lot worse than cows.”
He said the litter could create run-off problems from fields into rivers and ground water.
“Tyson just agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to Missouri for river pollution,” he said.
Sparkman said when farmers grow a flock of chickens, the litter becomes theirs. They might use it for their crops or sell it to other farmers, he said.
“It’s an organic fertilizer,” he said. “It really has a pretty high value.”
▪ What will happen to waste water?
“A packing plant will require an upgrade to existing facilities or the building of a new one,” Stull said. “Tyson won’t go to some place that doesn’t have financial support (to give them).”
But Sparkman said those funds will come from Tyson.
“We always either pre-treat our waste water before it goes to the city for further treatment, then it goes back into whatever system that area has,” he said. “Or if the city does not have the capacity to deal with our water, we’ll build our own waste water treatment and treat it ourselves. It’s managed at the same level of municipalities around the U.S.”
He said Tyson must obtain permits to discharge water, so they work hand in hand with the local municipalities and are in compliance with local, state and federal regulations.
Asked if Tyson will pay for any new facilities if needed, Sparkman said, “We’ll pay for our own treatment or our own pretreatment, yes. That will be part of the project depending on the location.”
The Greater Wichita Partnership said they are planning multiple opportunities for public input to the potential Tyson plant.
“The information gathered during this due diligence phase will help the Sedgwick County Commission, and the community, see if the advantages of Sedgwick County align with the Tyson Foods opportunity,” Jaimie Garnett, Executive Vice President said in a news release Friday.