Highlighting how contentious the issue of large poultry farms is becoming in some eastern Nebraska counties, Dodge County, where Costco's new chicken-processing facility is being built, has said no to a proposed large operation there.
The Dodge County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 Wednesday to deny a conditional-use permit for a 10-barn poultry operation near Nickerson, which would have produced chickens for Lincoln Premium Poultry and the Costco plant.
The operation as proposed would have housed 475,000 chickens, which would have been the largest such operation approved for Dodge County thus far.
The proposal was brought forward by landowners Lee and Pamela Camenzind, whose son Case Camenzind was hoping to operate the barns with his wife.
It’s the second time that the younger Camenzind has had his plans shot down — he withdrew his application for an eight-barn site in Washington County in April after the planning commission there denied the proposal.
It’s also the second time that Nickerson residents have fought to prevent a Costco-related project from coming to town. In 2016, Costco tried and failed to establish its chicken-processing plant in Nickerson — on land also owned by Lee Camenzind.
The 4-2 vote against Wednesday’s proposal came after hours of public comment both in favor of and against the operation.
Those who spoke against the proposal listed numerous concerns: the environmental impact of chicken litter produced and applied as fertilizer at the site, the potential odor, the impact on property values, the size of the site, and the impact of increased truck traffic on traffic safety and road conditions.
Proponents, meanwhile, said they believed that Lincoln Premium Poultry was going above and beyond the necessary regulations to monitor its environmental impact, and argued that the project has distinct economic benefits that could boost a struggling agriculture industry and keep families on the farm.
Nickerson resident Randy Ruppert, whose group Nebraska Communities United has long opposed the Costco project, argued that Nebraska already has “a serious problem with nitrogen and phosphorus in our groundwater and in our lakes and our streams” that could be made worse by the increased poultry production brought on by Costco’s contract producers.
“Our waters cannot absorb more of this type of pollution,” he said. “Costco and Lincoln Premium Poultry should require growers to put in cover crops and put buffer strips around waterways to help prevent runoff of nutrients produced at the site that may be used as fertilizer,” he argued.
Officials from Lincoln Premium Poultry noted that they require all of their producers to get a permit from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, despite not being mandated to do so. That means that all producers must develop nutrient-management plans that make them subject to state testing and monitoring.
Some people at the meeting questioned whether DEQ’s regulations or testing would be adequate, and challenged the board to consider implementing its own level of accountability. Independent agronomist Mike Williams suggested, for instance, that the board bring in an independent third party to report directly to the county and monitor manure application.
Some Nickerson residents expressed concern about how additional trucks going in and out of the facility might affect traffic safety on county roads and the area highways, as well as how increased maintenance on county roads could affect taxpayers.
The arguments both for and against the operation were similar to what planning commissions and county boards have heard in other counties, including Lancaster County.
An operation approved in September will host about 190,000 broiler chickens on land in the southwest part of Lancaster County, just a couple of miles from Crete.
It faced strong opposition from area residents, environmentalists and others. Ruppert was among the people who testified against the operation. Neighbors filed a court appeal of the County Board's decision, but no trial date has been set.
Jessica Kolterman, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, said opposition like what the company faced in Lancaster County and against the Dodge County farm has been the exception rather than the rule.
Kolterman said she was at a planning meeting in Madison County on Thursday night along with a farmer proposing an poultry operation and, other than the commissioners, "we were the only people in the room."
In fact, she said, the vote on the Camezinds' proposal was the first time a Costco-related poultry operation has not been approved by a county board, although a few proposals have been withdrawn in the face of opposition.
Kolterman said there so far are about 40 poultry-producing operations either built or in various stages of construction. The company hopes to eventually have 100-125 operations overall.
She said two farms, one in Dodge County and one in Butler County, are now raising pullets, which once they are sexually mature will move onto breeding farms. The chicks hatched at those breeding farms will then go on to broiler farms, where they will spend six to eight weeks growing and gaining weight.
They will be the first birds to go to the $300 million, 360,000-square-foot processing plant in Fremont, which is scheduled to open after Labor Day, Kolterman said.
The plant will process 2 million chickens a week, which will go to Costco stores across the country.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, in a visit to Fremont on Thursday, voiced his support for the Nickerson operation and said he hopes a compromise can be worked out.
"I know you guys are working through that process right now, and I hope the Dodge County Board works with you to try and get those permits available to get that up and running," Ricketts said, speaking directly to Case Camenzind and his wife, Joscelyn.
Kolterman said the Camezinds are "100 percent committed to growing with us," and they intend to find a pathway forward to make that happen.