A State representative whose district has seen explosive growth in the number of poultry farms over the past year and was recently appointed to a newly-formed council to examine the growth also works for one of the companies that has been one of the driving forces behind the increase in poultry operations in eastern Oklahoma.
Josh West, R-Grove, was appointed by House Speaker Charles McCall to the Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth, a group whose formation was announced last week by Gov. Mary Fallin’s office and the Cherokee Nation to examine the increase in poultry farms near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
West, whose district includes the mid-eastern and most of western parts of Delaware County, is employed in management as a Lean coordinator for Simmons Foods, the poultry company contracting with most of the new chicken farms in the area as the company prepares to open an expanded processing facility in Gentry, Ark., in 2019.
Since 2015, the number of birds in licensed Poultry Feeding Operations in Oklahoma has increased by nearly 60 percent, to around 59.4 million chickens in 2018, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. In Delaware County alone, the number of birds in PFOs nearly doubled during that period, going from 10.3 million birds in 2015 to 19.6 million in 2018, the data shows.
Nearly all of the poultry farm growth has happened in eastern Oklahoma, which is also home to numerous scenic rivers and streams, such as Spring Creek and the Illinois River.
The new farms have raised the ire of many residents in Delaware, Adair and other counties, who say the new operations pop up with little to no warning, have harmed air and water quality and groundwater availability, and have saturated the area.
Some residents affected by the new operations have also expressed skepticism that the coordinating council announced by Fallin’s office and the Cherokee Nation last week will result in meaningful change.
The coordinating council will be co-chaired by Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese and Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill, and will include staff from the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma’s Department of Food, Forestry and Agriculture, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Grand River Dam Authority and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, according to Fallin’s office.
A spokesman for Fallin said Thursday the council has yet to name all of its members.
West said he was instrumental in the council’s formation.
“I’m going to get to work on this and work with different groups,” West said. “This council came from my request to get everybody involved and start looking for solutions.”
West was hired by Simmons Foods a few years prior to being elected to office, and his duties include finding organizational efficiencies and saving money, rather than duties on the farming side, he said.
However, the Simmons family were early supporters of his candidacy according to Ethics Commission records.
Mark Simmons, manager of Simmons Foods, and his wife Diane were among West’s earliest and largest donors when he first began his campaign in 2015, Ethics Commission records show, with both making separate $2,700 donations. Todd Simmons, CEO of Simmons Foods, is also among West’s campaign donors, the records show.
West has received at least $11,000 in campaign contributions from individuals in poultry industry since 2015, according to Oklahoma Ethics Commission records.
West said he has never tried to hide his employment at Simmons Foods (and even publicly announced it during a recent community meeting in Oaks about the poultry operations) and does not believe his job as a manager for Simmons conflicts with his duties as a state legislator or as a member of the new council.
“If this was a council on education, I think you would want a teacher on there,” West said. “If it was something looking at health care outcomes, then we would probably have a doctor. That’s why I think it’s a given I be on this because I don’t know anyone who has any experience in poultry.”
West said he has never been asked by Simmons or representatives from other poultry companies or groups to influence legislation or Department of Agriculture rules.
“These farms aren’t owned by Simmons or Tyson or Georgia, they’re individually owned farms. I work in the poultry industry,” West said. “I don’t work in that part of the industry, so they don’t discuss their business model with me. Irregardless, as the representative for this district, it’s my job to look for solutions.”
West said he began getting phone calls from people in the area about the poultry operations in March or April. Many of those who have lodged complaints are from the district south of his, in the district of Rep. Will Fourkiller, D-Stilwell, who introduced a bill later signed into law in 2015 making changes to poultry industry regulations.
West said he sees both sides of the issue, and while those living near the new farms are concerned about the number of new chicken houses being built, the farm owners are concerned about property rights.
That’s why West said he hopes the new council comes up with solutions that may involve changing Department of Agriculture rules, rather than something that would require legislation that could have broader effects on property rights.
“I see both sides. There are just as many people who are just as passionate about it on the poultry side,” West said. “That’s why I think it’s important that if there are changes going to be made, that they’re made by the Department of Agriculture to the rules instead of making a bill that’s going to affect the whole state on a local issue.”
Many of those who are upset about the new farms also work in agriculture. West said that is why the work of the council — and bringing in people from all sides of the issue — is so important.
“There’s people from all sides going to come in,” West said. “I see rural versus urban each day at the Capitol and sometimes it’s even a bigger battle than the partisan battles. I hate to see rural versus rural, honestly. So I think by coming together and discussing the issues from both sides that it’s going to be a positive group and I’m looking forward to participating.”