TONGANOXIE — The colorful chicken-festooned sign hoisted by Corbin Reischman resonated with city slickers and cow punchers Friday night at a massive rally in opposition to construction by Tyson Foods of a $320 million chicken production and slaughtering hub in Leavenworth County.
Corbin, 4, stood in front of the crowd, estimated at 2,500 people, to declare: “No Tyson! No friggin’ chickens! No kidding!”
“We’re cattle producers,” said Tonganoxie resident Josh Reischman, the boy’s father. “This plant is going to be within 2 miles of our home. The feed mill is going to be at the end of our driveway. We’re for agriculture, but we’re not for industrial agriculture.”
Tyson executives, Tonganoxie and Leavenworth County officials and Gov. Sam Brownback joined hands less than two weeks ago to reveal the secret blueprint for development of a chicken hatchery, feed mill, meatpacking plant and 300 to 400 poultry grow houses. Before the announcement, folks were aware a “Project Sunset” was under consideration. Only insiders were aware a Tyson plant was on the horizon.
The main complex would be on 300 acres south of Tonganoxie near Interstate 70, while the poultry houses spread over a 50-mile radius of a facility capable of processing 1.2 million chickens each week. If approved, Tyson officials plan to break ground this fall and initiate production in mid-2019. It will generate about 1,600 jobs, the company said.
Substantial local and state government tax breaks and incentives — much of which are still confidential — helped draw Tyson to this part of northeast Kansas in a competition against other locales.
During the outdoor rally of rebellion hosted by one Democratic and two Republican state legislators, speaker after speaker shared personal visions of environmental, economic, traffic and public infrastructure problems that could result if Tyson moved ahead with the project.
Kent Porter leaned into a microphone and fired the first salvo by denouncing a recently retired CEO of Tyson, who collected a $24 million severance package. He blasted a Tyson executive for pulling down a juicy $5 million annual salary. He said those businessmen didn’t earn sky-high compensation through good deeds, such as finding a cure for pediatric cancer.
“They put chemicals in the water that causes pediatric cancer,” he said.
Joyce Williams, who operates a ranch that raises certified red and black Angus cattle near Tonganoxie, said waste from raising millions of chickens would threaten both water and soil. It’s common for poultry-house farmers to spread waste on fields as fertilizer, but Williams said the practice could threaten soil quality and endanger the water supply. That’s an especially large problem if the chickens grown in confined spaces are provided feed containing antibiotics designed to ward off disease, she said.
“Their chicken feed has to be laced with it,” she said. “They’re going to offer that to people to put on pastures. It stinks.”
When the project was unveiled at a news conference on Sept. 5 in downtown Tonganoxie, Mayor Jason Ward said the city was looking forward to a robust partnership with Tyson. He said investments in infrastructure projects, including roads, were intended to promote industrial growth and that Tyson fit that niche.
“This project will bring much-anticipated opportunities for local residents to enjoy the quality of life benefit of working close to home,” said Ward, who hailed Tyson’s commitment to small towns and local markets. “They will be a great fit for our community.”
Drew Overmiller, a Tonganoxie resident and participant in Citizens Against Project Sunset, said the pattern of secrecy regarding the Tyson development was disturbing to many people angry about the project. Of particular concern is the revelation the town’s mayor works at a Kansas City law firm that does business with Tyson. In Overmiller’s eyes, that amounted to a deep conflict of interest.
“When you have secrecy, it destroys trust,” said Overmiller, who believes the unifying Republican-and-Democrat, urban-and-rural opposition movement is surging. “This is really a purple event.”
Justin Sturgeon, part of an area family going back six generations, said the mayor and city commission pledged to support a project “broadly opposed by Tonganoxie city residents and Leavenworth County residents alike.” Controversy about the project will create hard feelings among friends and neighbors, he said, while draining energy and finances of everyone involved.
Ashley Farr, of Linwood, said she was committed to helping collect petition signatures for presentation to the Leavenworth County Commission. In all, petitions tied to six counties were being circulated.
“It’s been incredible. I can’t believe how fast word has spread,” she said.
Hundreds of yard signs and T-shirts with some version of “No Tyson in Tongy” dot the community. Steve Pearson, a city resident, was selling shirts that suggested Tyson take their chicken factory elsewhere.
“It’s way too close to town. It’s directly north of the grade school. It’s just a railroad job,” he said.
Rep. Jim Karleskint, a Republican who represents Tonganoxie and Eudora in the Kansas House, said a key decision about the Tyson plant had yet to be made by county officials. The project can’t go forward without rezoning land to allow for the commercial development, he said.
“Many of you fear this is a done deal and that we don’t have a choice. Folks, we do have a choice,” said Karleskint, who lives less than 3 miles from the proposed plant site. “Do I have a vested interest? Oh, yes. This is not a done deal.”