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Chicken controversy
Feb. 29, 2016
Cokato-based Forsman Farms hopes to expand from 1.2 million laying hens at its Howard Lake location off Highway 12, to an additional 1.25 million hens at a proposed new site 4 miles south, plus space for as many as 375,000 chicks. The expansion would include a cage-free egg-laying farm in Stockholm Township, a 140,000-square-foot off-line processing plant in Howard Lake, and a feed mill near Howard Lake. Forsman Farms needs approval from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Stockholm Township Board before it can begin construction. The township’s planning and zoning board could vote on plans in April.

Forsman Farms defends plans

By Bruce Strand

America has a massive appetite for eggs; we love them in omelettes, scrambled eggs, pancakes, Egg McMuffins, cakes, and a myriad of other ways.

In recent years, along with the huge demand, there’s been a stern admonition by customers, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, for egg providers to make life better for the laying hens – by getting rid of the small cages they’re kept in and giving them room to roam and spread their wings.

Forsman Farms, a provider of eggs for almost a century (with the brand name Mae’s Eggs locally) has plans to expand its operation along those lines.

This proposal, however, has left some neighbors very nervous about such issues as increased odor, well depletion, property values, truck traffic, and conflicts of interest with local authorities. (See separate story in this issue.)

Peter Forsman, an executive of the farm, expressed confidence that, with the most advanced technology and attention to all those concerns, there shouldn’t be a problem.

“With this specific project, we are meeting all regulation and zoning requirements,” Forsman explained. “In fact, we are going above-and-beyond what is required by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and zoning requirements. The land we are building on is zoned for agriculture.”

He asserted, “The additional significant investment we are making to limit perceived nuisances is not required, but because we live in this community, we want to build a world-class farm that our customers, employees, and communities can be proud of.”

The recently-formed Stockholm Township Concerned Citizens Group has been mounting opposition to the project that got the attention of WCCO TV for a recent report.

Forsman told WCCO that the farm is responding to the demand for cage-free eggs, and needs up to eight new barns to keep up.

He said they have addressed the environmental impact by taking “a lot of steps” to cut down odor and emissions, including an innovative new ventilation system, and a new process to pelletize the manure.

He said the farm is a state-of-the-art facility that will provide enough cage-free eggs to feed 1.3 million Americans, and will have many features no other farm utilizes.

Construction will provide many tradesman jobs, and the farm will employ an additional 25 people when completed, while doing business with many local firms, he said.

Four-generation history
Albert Forsman began Forsman Farms in 1918, with 120 acres. His son, Norman, took over in 1959, with 1,300 chickens, and started selling eggs to local vendors and restaurants, assisted by his wife, Mae, who gathered and cleaned the eggs daily.

Their son, Gary, succeeded them in 1974, with his wife, Debbie, eventually increasing to 60,000 chickens.

Their sons, Peter and Dave now handle day-to-day duties, while Gary and Debbie still oversee operations.

The family admits to be a bit shaken by the criticism, which Dave said is a new experience for them because previous expansions faced no opposition.

“It hurts. It really does,” explained Dave. “Our dad, especially, feels it personally.” He added that the family has spent “millions of dollars” to exceed all regulations. “We will prove them wrong” if expansion goes ahead, he pledged.

Peter said the family does things the right way, because they’ve been here for four generations and want it to continue four more generations.

“To our knowledge, there are only a handful of township residents vocally against this proposed farm, and we are trying hard to address their concerns,” he said.

Supplying jobs
The farm employs 120 people who shop locally and send kids to Dassel-Cokato schools, Peter said, and partners with many local businesses to work on their vehicles, heating and cooling systems, water treatment, and make specialized equipment, while their feed comes from corn and soybeans of local farmers. (They also have a smaller operation in Montevideo.)

Addressing what he called “confusion” about what is proposed, he said the expansion would include a cage-free egg-laying farm in Stockholm Township; a 140,000-square-foot off-line processing plant in Howard Lake, where all eggs will be washed, graded, and broken; and a feed mill near Howard Lake.

The project will not include, he said, expansion of the home farm on Mowery Avenue, washing and grading of eggs on the proposed new site, or the originally-planned pullet farm site addition on 60th Street, which has been withdrawn.

They will pave 105th Street from Wright County Road 3 to the farm, as well as the driveway.

Addressing fears
He asserted that the facility will be one of the most bio-secure in the country, pointing out that Forsman Farms was not struck with the 2015 avian influenza outbreak that devastated many state facilities, because “we learned a lot about the virus and ways to protect ourselves from it.”

Forsman said he understands why these neighbors are concerned, but feels they have based their opinions on Internet research that doesn’t pertain to laying hens.

Regarding the fear that neighbors’ property values will fall, a written response by Forsman Farms points out that both the citizens’ group sources – a Greenfield Advisors report and a study on the website factorfarmtaxprotest.org – deal with hog, cattle, and dairy barns, which have open manure lagoons, and not with layer hens.

Property values
Forsman Farms cited an independent summary in Colorado that found poultry operations had little affect, including just a $32 decrease on property value of a $400,000 home.

Also, Forsman said they reviewed home sales within about 3 miles of the current farm over the last three years and found the average sale price was $305,390, compared to the average tax-assessed value of $239,980.

Cage-free eggs are going to cost more, he acknowledged. That’s because cage-free requires more labor cost and more space; more food, because hens burn off calories moving around; and results in higher mortality, because chickens are often mean to each other.

The ventilation system, he explained, will consist of air first exiting each house into the manure-drying chamber, where some dust will settle; then proceeding though 30-foot-high chimneys, which trap dust and disperse emissions; as opposed to the traditional barn system of air leaving from the basement directly onto ground level.

Other unique features, Forsman said, include indoor manure drying, which will remove most of the odor; manure pelletizing, which reduces the volume and produces a natural fertilizer product; and systems that will significantly reduce air emissions, odor, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide to levels lower than regulations require.

This information has been presented at two public meetings, he said, and many of the technical details are included in the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) submitted to MPCA.

Planning and zoning
Regarding the neighbors’ concern that planning and zoning members have conflicts of interest, Forsman said these officials “work really hard to ensure that the ordinances and zone requirements are being followed in their jurisdictions.”

Regarding recent property acquisition, Forsman said the family has raised corn and soybeans in and around the township for almost a century and, “like any farmer,” has routinely purchased additional land when the opportunity arose.

Asked if Forsman Farms currently or formerly used battery cages, and how much space the laying hens will have to roam in the new facilities, he said they have “mixed housing systems” for the hens.

“We see and recognize the need for cage-free,” he said, noting that different customers have different standards for cage-free, and the company will respond to each.

Howard Lake City Administrator Nick Haggenmiller said the city council’s “first blush was quite favorable” to the proposal with regard to “expanding the tax base and providing jobs,” and that the staff felt Forsmans appears to “meet and exceed our development guidelines.”

Citizens share their concerns

By Bruce Strand

Stench, wells going dry, insects and rodents, dust, heavy truck traffic, lower property values, and increased potential for bird flu are concerns raised by the Stockholm Township Concerned Citizens Group.

The group was recently formed in opposition to Forsman Farms’ proposed expansion of its egg-producing facility.

“The only amicable solution is that the community will not compromise the quality of air, land, water, or the future of our children,” said Max Anderson, spokesman for the group.

The group’s website lists a litany of concerns, citing research of other such facilities around the country.

They also doubt that expansion will bring a sizable tax revenue benefit to the area, citing their own calculations that the amount will be minimal.

Forsman Farms representatives said they feel all these concerns will be satisfactorily addressed. (See separate story in this issue).

The group
The citizens’ group has “about six” core members who are direct neighbors of the two proposed sites, said Anderson, and communicates with about 50 people who want to be kept informed.

He said about 10 township residents sent emails after a recent WCCO report, saying they didn’t know this was happening and want to help stop it.

Anderson argued that Wright County planning and zoning ordinances forbid any conditional use permits that will affect property values and use of property, or produce noise and dust.

He said his group has provided “hundreds of case studies” supporting their concern about decreased property values, but they’ve been rejected by local authorities.

He said there’s a conflict of interest with some planning and zoning members being either feedlot owners or associated with feedlots.

Leonard Wozniak, chairman of the Stockholm Township Planning Commission, said he could not comment at this time, except to pledge that “every aspect of this operation is being closely looked at and considered.”

If Forsman Farms goes ahead with the expansion, Anderson said, citizens will be “responsible for making sure they keep all their promises,” and thus will be on the hook to spend money to enforce laws or hire a lawyer.

He said neighbors of the Howard Lake facility are complaining of insects, smell, trucks exceeding the expected limit, and parking on both sides of the road, making it inaccessible to locals.

“Going over property ownership maps, we’ve found a disturbing amount of property bought up by the Forsmans,” Anderson said. “This is telling us that they are looking to take over Stockholm Township in chicken barns.”

Anderson said the citizens group is more at odds with the planning and zoning committee, “who should be representing us, the community, not their own personal interests,” than they are with Forsman Farms, which is “just trying to grow its business.”

Anderson, 39, lives just west of the proposed site. His family of four moved from Chanhassen two years ago to the two-story house surrounded by farm fields, which so enchants him that he often takes photos of the tractors and combines working the fields. He hopes that view won’t be replaced by “chicken barns and odor.”

He asked Peter Forsman for information about the new European design in the proposed plan, and when he checked a website Peter gave him, he found that the farm referenced was quite different, with chickens allowed access to the outside with dirt runs. He said he found several articles in which European countries were trying to shut down corporate egg farming.

“We’ve got facts and studies based on real numbers that back us up,” Anderson maintained. “Forsman Farms has a bunch of statistics that generally don’t pertain to our area, and many of those facts can be disproved with simple math.”

Truck traffic
For instance, he said, in the matter of truck traffic, Forsman Farms stated in the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) that they will have 10,134 tons of dried manure, which will take 166 trucks to haul, but Anderson’s math says otherwise: the maximum a truck can haul with the 10-ton road limit is 23 tons, which would work out to 440 trips, he said.

Decreased property values is a big issue, too, Anderson said. “There are massive amounts of data proving that property values decrease when concentrated animal feedlot operations go in. Most of the studies are for feedlots that are less than half the size of the proposed site.”

When he gives people directions to his house near Cokato, he said, they often respond, “That’s the town that smells like chicken [expletive] right before you get there.”

Animal advocacy
Jane Murschel, a self-described animal advocate who grew up in the township, submitted a letter to the citizen group’s website that took issue with Forsman Farms’ statements in a recent WCCO report.

Regarding a reference to water usage being the same as a nine-hole golf course, she noted that the golf course isn’t open 365 days a year. If neighboring wells go dry, she said, it costs $15,000 to $20,000 for a new one.

“Destroy land, destroy creeks, destroy people’s enjoyment of living in the country, and destroy these animals, all for the huge profit of a few,” she noted.

The odors, she said, are a health hazard for workers and neighbors.

As for the chickens themselves, she wondered how having over a million of them in buildings “with no access to the outdoors and never see daylight – never – [is] any healthier or better for the chickens.”

“I grew up on a farm that is still in the family about 2 miles east of the proposed mega feedlot,” Murschel stated. She calls farming “a truly beautiful way of life [using] what God has provided us,” but declares that concentrated feedlot operations are “not farming” and treat the chicken “like a robot, like a machine.”

Neighbors speak out
In a report by WCCO TV, neighbor Chelsea Smith was especially worried about increased odor.

“The smell is constantly a problem,” Smith said. “It can get pretty strong; especially when it’s humid. We don’t want other people to deal with what we do on a daily basis.”

Carol Gedde, recently widowed, said she regrets that she and her late husband recently built a retirement home nearby as pillar of their financial strategy.

“I would never have built my home where it is if I had previous knowledge of such a project,” Gedde stated.

She noted that 41 homes within a mile of the proposed feedlot expansions are all established residences and face a “grave injustice . . . to have such an environmentally negative expansion forced on us,” adding she’s seen studies projecting a 7 to 30 percent drop in property values close to feedlots due to odor and potential of air and water contamination.

Nearby resident Lori DeRosier said she is worried about the effect of expansion on the future of Stockholm Township.

“Living in the country is our sanctuary, and Forsman Farms wants to ruin it by putting up these mega feedlots,” she said. “If I wanted to live by a feedlot, I would have chosen to do so; not have one forced upon me.”

Feedlot problems elsewhere
Researching the odor question, the citizens’ group cites a plant in Arizona where “critics say the air around Tonopah’s tiny downtown has been filled by a terrible stench,” according to a Phoenix New Times report last October, prompting locals to file an Environmental Protection Agency complaint.

Also cited is Surry County in North Carolina where more than 27 million broiler chickens are being produced and the stench got the attention of state park officials even during winter, according to a Winston-Salem Journal article in February. One 30-year resident said the smell had become “indescribable” and made her eyes burn one day.

Regarding property values, the group cited a National Association of Realtors report on CAFO’s stating the “most studies have found a negative relationship between feedlots and property values,” and a Pew Commission report finding that “Industrialization of animal agriculture leads to the reduced enjoyment of property and the deterioration of the surrounding landscape, which are reflected in declining home values and lowering of property tax assessments ...”

Regarding increased truck traffic, they cited an Indiana Economic Report article stating that two Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) in one county caused $57,000 in damage to roads the previous year.

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