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Oct. 07, 2005
Animal abuse charges cloud egg factory's expansion plans
By Todd C. Frankel

NEOSHO, Mo. - (KRT) - Rick Bussey pointed to his steak fajita. The dish was important to understanding just how unlikely it was that Bussey - a painting contractor and cattle rancher - would find himself at the center of a dispute over chickens. It's a fight that has divided the town and pitted family against family.

"I'm not an animal-rights nut. I'm here eating steak. I'm wearing leather boots. I like calf-roping," Bussey, 43, said at a local restaurant last week. "But what they did to those chickens was wrong."

He admits he used to give little thought to the 1 million chickens living next door to him. It seemed like the chickens had always been there, over at Moark's sprawling egg factory on the outskirts of town in the state's deepest southwest corner. Even the stinging stench from tons of chicken manure was something like background noise to him.

But two incidents earlier this year changed Bussey's mind. First, Moark, a Chesterfield, Mo.-based company, announced plans to at least double the number of chickens at its Neosho site, creating the largest such operation in the state. And then, by chance, Bussey saw workers dumping a mix of live and dead chickens into a tractor trailer, and he videotaped them. Four workers and the company have since been charged with criminal animal abuse.

The resulting controversy has surprised many in this rural, politically conservative area. Some residents for the first time are questioning the large-scale animal facilities that blanket the region and which are major employers. Local politicians have been caught off-guard. And facing an unexpected tide of opposition, officials with the state Department of Natural Resources have delayed making a decision about Moark's future. A verdict on Moark's permit request, expected by August, has been pushed back until at least later this month.

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Residents struggle to describe the smell. It has the dense aroma of ammonia. It pops up with regularity and varies with the wind. "In the morning, it's just deadly," Bussey said.

Last week, he was driving the rural highway that cuts past Moark's chicken houses, a series of low-slung metal warehouses with giant fans on one end. Bussey uses this road to get home. Sitting just off the highway was Crowder College, a two-year school with 2,000 students. The school's trustees voted in June to issue a statement asking DNR to reject Moark's permit request because of concerns about increased odor and water pollution.

Manure is a major water pollution concern. The waterways in this area are stressed from years of nutrient-laden runoff. Companies like Moark, called concentrated animal feeding operations, face regulation of how they dispose of their waste. Moark sells most of it to farmers for fertilizing fields. Bussey used to use it on his field.

Bussey pointed to a small turn-off near a chicken house. That is where he shot his video. He was driving his daughter to softball practice on July 7 when something caught his eye. He saw a conveyor belt tossing chickens into a tractor trailer. Some of the chickens appeared to move and try to fly away. He drove home and retrieved his video camera. The tape was turned over to the local prosecutor. On July 29, misdemeanor charges of animal abuse were filed. The cases are pending.

Bussey continued down the road, past a small building painted blue and white. It was Moark's offices.

"I painted that three, four years ago," he said.

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Dan Hudgens, Midwest division manager for Moark, sat in his office below a map filled with colored push pins marking Moark's reach. The company has facilities in more than a dozen states. It is the nation's third largest egg producer and is owned by Land O'Lakes and an investment group begun by the man who created the company in southwest Missouri in 1965.

Hudgens said Moark's DNR permit was about modernization. The company wants to build 13 new chicken houses. Each one would stretch for 436 feet, cages running the length of the building and eight high. A single chicken house would contain 200,700 hens.

The egg business, like many sectors of the economy, has felt the pressure to grow or get out. Forty years back, a chicken house might hold 10,000 hens and be owned by a single farmer. The newest chicken houses hold at least 200,000 and are run by companies. Hudgens said other egg companies use even larger houses, but he wasn't comfortable with that.

Neosho was not Moark's first choice for new chicken houses. The company tried last year to build in Kansas and Oklahoma, but faced a mix of community opposition.

"I felt we should invest our money in Missouri upgrading our facilities," Hugdens said.

How many chickens would be left in Neosho if Moark wins approval is disputed. The company runs two other chicken facilities in Missouri, both in neighboring counties, with a total of 2.9 million birds among the three. According to the company, the net effect would be 3.5 million birds. But some residents question Moark's numbers.

The egg business is run with scientific precision. Hudgens knows that 82.5 percent of the hens can be expected to lay one egg a day. He knows how much water each bird drinks. He knows the exact moisture content of the manure - and how manipulating that will reduce odor. That is key because each new chicken house would produce 6 tons of fresh manure each day. Much of the smell should be eradicated by getting the manure moisture down to 50 percent, which the new houses are designed for, Hudgens said.

"Everything is geared toward making the chicken comfortable so she's productive," Hudgens said. "The end result is everybody will be better off."

Moark is gambling that its operating permit will be approved. Three new chicken houses already have been built. They are empty for now. "I guess we could end up with a big blunder, but we're doing it right," Hudgens said.

They were doing it right, with Moark's permit moving along smoothly, despite opposition, until the animal abuse charges. Hudgens is one of the accused.

He didn't deny that live chickens were thrown away with dead ones. In the industry, hens that no longer produce eggs are called "spent hens." Moark guidelines call for spent hens to be euthanized in a 55-gallon drum with carbon monoxide. Workers are supposed to watch for chickens that survived the procedure and perform an approved "cervical dislocation." The job fell to a three-man crew hired by Moark, Hudgens said.

"One that particular evening, they just weren't being patient," he said.

Hudgens said the incident and resulting charges have been difficult for him. He said he's always been dedicated to doing things the right way. "Was there a failure that night? Absolutely," he said. "Was there animal abuse? I guess that depends on the definition of animal abuse."

Everyone wants to know what Doyle Childers thinks. As director of DNR, he alone makes the decision whether Moark should be allowed to operate the new chicken houses. Childers said in an interview he was inclined to allow Moark to replace its old chicken houses with new ones. "The big decision is if they expand," he said.

Childers said the animal abuse charges do not officially factor into his decision, because the permit deals with questions of water quality. But it did worry him.

"I'm not in a rush to do this. I want to make sure we take everything into consideration," Childers said.

A group of DNR employees has been meeting with residents to hear their concerns. Wes Nall, retired Neosho postmaster, and his wife, Vera, met with a DNR official last week. They joined the opposition after hearing about Bussey's video. Now, they drive around in a Buick with an orange hat in the back window reading, "Chickens Don't Vote."

"This is the first thing that I've been this passionate about," Wes Nall, 68, said.

"I feel shame because we're down in this mess and we didn't even know it," said Vera Nall, 65.

Another couple fighting Moark is Mark Adams and May Belle Osborne. She is the sister of Hollis Osborne, the man who started Moark years ago and remains a board member. Adams worked at Moark for a decade. Despite their ties, they have worked hard to stop Moark's new Permit. They helped gather 3,500 names on a petition against Moark. They've been frustrated by the lack of city and county politicians willing to take a stand one way or the other.

It was like Adams and Osborne were making up for not taking action before.

"I feel responsible we didn't pay attention to this a long time ago," May Belle Osborne, 63, said.

And the fight has changed how people here view their familiar neighbor with the 1 million hens.

"I think everybody carries field glasses and cameras with them now," Adams said.

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