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Local Chicken Farm Expansion Denied By County Commission

By Echo Menges (Printed by The Edina Sentinel on May 21, 2014)

Over the last few months a quiet storm has been brewing in the Knox County Commissioners Chambers involving one of the county’s two existing chicken farms and one farmer’s request to expand his family’s operation.

On one side of the debate is the Burkholder Chicken Farm and Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Burkholder who own and operate the business, on the other is the Knox County Eastern and Western District Commissioners, Terry “Red” Callahan and Roger Parton and the Knox County CAFO Ordinance.

The Burkholder Chicken Farm opened officially in July of 2012. It is located about three miles north of Edina and is comprised of a 300-foot building, which houses the entire operation. The building houses thousands of egg laying hens, all of which are “cage free” and able to freely roam about the bulk of the state-of-the-art facility.

“We don’t have any cages or any shelving. We didn’t want them on top of each other,” said Burkholder.

The hens are housed in a completely open environment with several levels to perch, roost, feed and water. Within that area a special tent, where the hens go to lay their eggs, is also included along with a special grating system designed to allow waste from the birds to be collected in a below ground, insulated, dry collection pit, which is credited for keeping the area clean, dry and limits the foul smell.

“Occasionally there is some smell,” said Mrs. Lonita Burkholder, “but not outside the building. Never outside the building.”

According to Burkholder, the hens produce enough nutrients to fertilize 34 acres of land annually.

The building also houses an egg conveyor belt, which brings the eggs from the laying tent to a packing station, a large walk-in cooling room, a cargo bay and an office space where the birds, feed and water systems, air flow, temperature and ammonia levels are all closely and electronically monitored and logged.

The farm supplies farm fresh brown eggs to Fairfield Specialty Egg Inc. based in Deer Grove, IL.

Fairfield bases their business on the principals of keeping healthy, comfortable livestock to produce cage free, organic and non-genetically modified eggs. Under the Fairfield brand eggs produced at the Burkholder Chicken Farm are marketed as “cage free” and sold at a number of retail stores.

Since its inception the Burkholder Chicken Farm is permitted to house 9,000 chickens without exceeding the criteria of allowed laying hens to be housed without qualifying as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).

Knox County’s CAFO Ordinance doesn’t allow a CAFO on the Burkholder Chicken Farm property because of setback distances. The facility is capped at 9,000 hens.

Of the hen allotment approximately 8,500 eggs are produced, packed and refrigerated at the farm every day. Once a week they ship the eggs to a Fairfield facility for packaging and distribution.

According to Burkholder, a few months ago, in March, he was given the opportunity to expand his business and acquire more birds. His obstacle was that he already had the maximum amount of birds allowed without qualifying as a CAFO in Knox County.

According to Burkholder, he and a representative of Fairfield put their heads together and began researching ways to legally expand. They found that in 2011, when the Knox County CAFO Ordinance was created, the animal unit allowances were based on federal Department of Natural Resources (DNR) animal unit definitions. One animal unit of laying hens consisted of 30 hens. But since the Knox County CAFO Law was instilled, in 2012, DNR changed their definition of laying hens for “dry handling” and increased it from 30 hens to 82 if they can be classified as “dry handling.”

Seeing as Burkholder runs a “dry handling” facility, where the animal waste is kept indoors, dry and unexposed to the outdoor elements, he asked the commissioners to amend the ordinance to include the higher allowable number of dry handling hens, just as DNR has done, which would allow him to expand and double his operation without falling into a CAFO classification.

“I called Callahan right away and told him we had an opportunity,” said Burkholder.

According to all of the commissioners, in the weeks that followed each of them visited the Burkholder Chicken Farm, discussed the opportunity at length with Burkholder and met with all of Burkholder’s neighbors.

According to Burkholder, the commissioners led him to believe the expansion would be allowed.

“I’ve been out there and it’s clean and it doesn’t smell,” said Callahan. “What I like about it is how clean it is. What he’s got out there is the real deal.”

All three commissioners confirmed every neighbor was unopposed to the expansion, there was “no foul smell” emitting from the Burkholder Chicken Farm building whatsoever, the facility was clean, state-of-the-art, well kept and deserving of the expansion.

But when it came down to it and a vote was called on Friday morning, May 16, 2014, it was quickly voted down by the Eastern and Western District Commissioners.

It was troubling news to Burkholder who was under the impression the animal unit definition, where dry handling hens were concerned, was indeed going to be changed.

When the commissioners were asked why they voted the change down Callahan stated, “I didn’t want to vote no, but when he built that chicken house out there he knew the setback distances and the ordinance. Now is a bad time for it to change. Everybody still remembers the hog ordeal and if you mention CAFO in Knox County everybody gets all upset. I still remember that meeting we had upstairs and I never want to go through that again.”

Parton stated, “I think it’s a good ordinance the way it is now. It’s one of the things people really liked when I came into office, our CAFO Ordinance, and I don’t want to change anything right now.”

According to the commissioners they did receive calls from citizens for and against the proposed change. Parton and the Presiding Commissioner Evan Glasgow said they received an equal amount of calls from people on either side of the debate. Callahan said the majority of calls he received concerning the matter were from people opposed to the change.

According to Section 7 of the Knox County CAFO Ordinance the commissioners are able to grant a “variance” to an individual depending on various circumstances. Such a variance might allow Burkholder to expand his operation.

When asked if they would consider granting a variance to Burkholder, Callahan said, “Nope,” and Parton said, “Not right now.”

“We don’t want to make any trouble,” said Burkholder who was absent for the commissioners’ vote on Friday. “I really thought they were going to make the change and allow us to expand.”

According to Glasgow, Knox County benefits from tax dollars brought in by the Burkholder Chicken Farm, which would increase if they were allowed to expand.

“In Knox County agriculture is our main industry. I hope people understand we are not talking about hogs here. We’re talking about hens and dry handling, which eliminates a lot of the waste issues people are understandably concerned about,” said Glasgow who did not have a vote in Friday’s decision. “I personally believe that if Knox County is going to stay current we need to adapt. If we continue to push out modern agriculture practices eventually we’ll have nothing.”