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The Cherokee Nation announced this week that it is forming a joint council with the state of Oklahoma to study the growing number of poultry houses in the state.

With help from the state, the Cherokee shared plans to form the Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth to examine the expansion of poultry production and its effects on rural communities.

"There has been a lot of discussion about the expansion," Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a news release.

The goal is to bring state and tribal agency leaders, researchers, agricultural, environmental and community stakeholders to the table so "there are opportunities for real communication" on issues involving poultry growers, Hoskin said.

The number of public meetings in opposition of industrial chicken houses being built in rural Oklahoma has increased in recent months. State and tribal agency officials, concerned neighbors and activist leaders have attended the meetings, providing documents, maps and thoughts about the issue.

"A lot of the construction has been in the Cherokee Nation's backyard," said Sara Hill, secretary of natural resources for the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee, the largest American Indian tribe in the country, is a federally recognized government of its native people. The nation's capital is near Tahlequah, Okla.

Collaborative efforts have been made before by the state of Oklahoma, but never with the Cherokee Nation.

After attending some public meetings and talking with elected state officials, Hill said, everyone began to ask, "Is there a better way to have this conversation with citizens in the community who have concerns and provide a better understanding of what's going on?"

Much of the growth in chicken houses is tied to Arkansas-based Simmons Foods. According to records filed with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, more than 200 chicken houses are on the books for development. Most of them are located in eastern Oklahoma and list Siloam Springs chicken producer Simmons Foods as the company contracting with Oklahoma chicken growers.

"I feel like our land and water has been colonized by Simmons," said Pam Kingfisher, Facebook administrator of the group Spring Creek Guardians. "We need to put a hold on this."

Named after a 34-mile stream, the Spring Creek Guardians formed in May in response to six chicken houses being built near Spring Creek in Oaks, Okla., about 22 miles west of Siloam Springs. The site was also near a burial ground affiliated with the Trail of Tears, which led to a 6-acre land purchase by the Cherokee Nation after growers decided to sell their land, stalling potential poultry growth.

"Within five days the tribe bought the land," Kingfisher said. "So immediately everyone started calling us, saying 'What about these 30 houses over here, what about me?'"

Critics at the meetings have shared concerns about damage to roads from the trucks carrying chickens, falling real estate values and air and water contamination.

"I believe we have a health crisis that no one is paying attention to," Kingfisher said.

Sources familiar with the growth in chicken production say it's tied to the Simmons Foods processing plant being built in rural Benton County less than 10 miles from the Oklahoma border.

The 315,000-square-foot plant is designed to process as much as 850 million pounds of chicken annually, according to Simmons Foods. The plant is currently under construction and is expected to be operational by 2019.

Simmons said in a statement Thursday that it supports the creation of the council and "looks forward to being involved and participating in constructive dialogue."

"We care about the communities where our contract grower farmers operate and welcome efforts to address meaningful, science-based solutions, studies and research," the statement said. "Simmons believes the perspective of local, independent family farmers who choose to add poultry to their farming business is another aspect of this discussion."

The council is co-chaired by Hill and Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese. It will include staff from the Cherokee Nation and staff from Oklahoma's Department of Food, Forestry and Agriculture, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Grand River Dam Authority and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

Business on 09/15/2018

Print Headline: Cherokees look at poultry expansion

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