The Kansas Legislature raced to enact legislation making it easier to locate large poultry production and slaughtering facilities in Kansas at the same time a fledgling organization began making noise in Coffeyville contrary to local economic-development officials' placement of a welcome map for Tyson Foods.
A bill approved by the Senate and up for a vote Monday in the House was developed at Tyson's behest and leveraged by the Kansas Department of Agriculture, Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas State University, Republican and Democratic legislators, as well as officials in Coffeyville and Montgomery County.
Advocates are confident of passage by the House and a signature from Gov. Jeff Colyer, who wants to appeal to rural voters ahead of the August primary in the governor's race.
"It is important to say that Kansas is open for business for poultry," Rep. Kyle Hoffman, agriculture committee chairman and Clearwater Republican, said Friday during debate on the bill. "There are communities out there that are actively seeking companies to come in and begin making investments."
The wave of political influence moving Senate Bill 405 didn't stop a group from throwing up a billboard Wednesday in Coffeyville featuring the word "Tyson" in black capital letters. The text was covered by the universal symbol for "no," a red circle with a diagonal line.
"Our organization, No Tyson in Montgomery County, is in opposition to a proposal to locate a Tyson chicken processing plant, or any other large-scale chicken processing plant, in Coffeyville," said group spokesman Justin Martin.
He shared disappointment with the Montgomery County Action Council, a non-elected organization placing "greater emphasis on financial gain while ignoring social and environmental factors" in the recruitment of businesses.
The council's process for vetting Tyson Foods has been "opaque, or secretive, and lacking of any opportunity for public discourse or debate," Martin said.
Trisha Purdon, executive director of the Montgomery County Action Council, said addition of a major poultry production operation would bring economic diversity to southeast Kansas. The local economy has relied upon heavy industry to drive job creation with the presence of John Deere, CVR Refinery, Cessna Aviation, ACME Foundry and Spears, but the area lost jobs with departure of an Amazon distribution center and Southwire Manufacturing.
"In the last few years, our region has also become known as 'the Appalachia of the Midwest' due to significant job losses, health indicators, poverty rates and substance abuse issues," Purdon said. "Southeast Kansas consistently has the highest unemployment and underemployment rates in the state, and bringing such a large employer to this area could alleviate this perpetual cycle."
Under Senate Bill 405, Kansas would allow a single farmer to house 330,000 chickens in 11 or 12 barns. The grower, if reliant on a supposedly more environmentally friendly "dry manure system," would be able to locate poultry barns up to 100 feet from a neighbor's property line or a quarter-mile from a neighbor's home.
Facilities with more than 82,000 laying hens or 125,000 broilers would be required by the bill to obtain a federal permit to operate in Kansas.
The legislative initiative in Kansas followed last fall's implosion of an economic-incentive package negotiated by Tyson Foods with Tonganoxie, Leavenworth County and state officials in the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback. Behind closed doors, they hatched details of a $320 million chicken processing complex near Tonganoxie.
Tyson Foods executives promised it would generate 1,500 jobs for the region. There would be a Tyson Foods-owned chick hatchery, feed mill and a slaughterhouse with a weekly capacity of 1.25 million birds. The region's farmers and ranchers would locate 200 to 250 barns on their property to raise the poultry.
Brownback and Tyson Foods praised the project as a milestone in agriculture diversification, but people living in the region mounted an intense "No Tyson in Tongie" campaign and the deal collapsed.
That prompted Tyson Foods and allies in the Kansas agriculture industry to seek alteration of state law to ease the burden of subsequent bids for chicken-company development. In the vacuum created by Tonganoxie, officials in Montgomery County and Cloud County said they were eager for a bite at Tyson Foods' apple.
Kendall Francis, city manager of Coffeyville, said environmental regulations captured in Senate Bill 405 would prevent soil and water pollution associated with confined poultry production.
"The proposed modifications open Kansas to substantial economic development benefits," Francis said. "The current statutes place Kansas at a severe disadvantage when competing against neighboring states."
However, Martin, of No Tyson in Montgomery County, said Tyson Foods' past conduct indicated disregard for the environment in its host communities.
"Even though repeatedly sued, with large fines levied by courts and government agencies, Tyson dutifully pays the fines as a routine cost of doing business," he said. "Any potential economic benefit is not worth the risk to the quality of our air, water and our health."