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Northwest Arkansas poultry companies in recent years have been looking elsewhere to raise their chickens, mostly in east Oklahoma.

Hundreds of independent growers in Washington and Benton Counties supply chickens for state-based producers, Tyson and Simmons Foods, and have been doing so for decades. But with words like "growth" and "expansion" on the lips of company executives, there's been a resurgence of chicken farms across the border in Oklahoma.

Jeremy Seiger, director of Oklahoma's agricultural and environmental services division, said that when he began in 2014, there were about 630 poultry feeding operations in the state. That number fell to 588, but has "kinda rebounded" to a few more than 600.

The Tulsa World reported recently about the increasing number of chicken houses being built in east Oklahoma, on and near the Illinois River Watershed. The article attributed the growth to a new Simmons Foods plant built in Benton County between Gentry and Decatur. Company officials, however, denied that all of the growth is from Simmons.

"Are all of those our farms? I don't think they are," Simmons spokesman Donny Epp said after a dedication ceremony Tuesday for the new plant.

But if it isn't Simmons, then who?

Seiger said the "key integrators in east Oklahoma are Simmons and Tyson Foods."

According to poultry litter studies compiled by Oklahoma's Department of Agriculture, there are three counties touching the Arkansas border that show significant increases in the number of licensed poultry farms, compared with a year ago. Two of them border Benton and Washington counties, where most of the state's chicken is raised and processed.

Delaware County, Okla. west of Benton County, showed the highest difference in licensed poultry feeding operations, with 38 more farms registered for fiscal 2017, compared with a year ago, an increase of about 156 houses.

Adair County, Okla., west of Washington County, had 29 more farms register year-over-year, an increase of about 98 houses.

Data for fiscal 2017 is based on calendar year July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017.

Asked about the increasing number of chicken farms in Oklahoma, a Tyson spokesman said the company's grower base in Delaware and Adair counties hasn't really changed.

"We've not seen a significant change in the number of farms or houses in those two counties over the past year," said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson, in an email. Meanwhile in Washington and Benton counties, overall poultry production increased as the number of farms and houses declined.

According to poultry litter data from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, overall bird capacities for Washington and Benton counties have risen with fewer houses. Data for fiscal 2017 is based on calendar year Jan. 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2016. An agency spokesman said in an email that calendar year 2017 figures are still being compiled.

Last fiscal year, 253 farms registered in Benton County, totaling 1,070 houses. Down from the year prior, when 269 farms were registered, totaling 1,101 houses. At the same time bird capacities increased to 24.1 million, up from 23.74 million a year ago.

Washington County figures showed similar activity. Last fiscal year, 184 farms registered in the county, totaling 903 houses. Down from a year ago, when 190 farms were registered, totaling 845 houses. Meanwhile, bird capacities increased to 17.3 million, from 16.1 million a year ago.

The new Simmons processing plant will require more than 200 grower houses by 2022.

David Jackson, president and chief operating officer of Simmons Prepared Foods, said about 40 percent of the company's grower base is in Oklahoma, another 40 percent is in Arkansas, and 20 percent is in Missouri. The growers supply a plant in Southwest City, Mo.

"We do have incremental houses being built to support our expansion," Jackson said. "But there's always replacement housing that has to be built to replace those that are at the end of life in this business."

Business on 06/21/2018

Print Headline: Eastern Oklahoma seeing a resurgence in poultry farming

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