A newly-built poultry operation outside Kansas, Okla. in Delaware County. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

The state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation announced Wednesday that the state and tribe plan to form a coordinating council to evaluate the expansion of poultry farms in northeastern Oklahoma.

The Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth will examine the expansion of poultry production and its impact on rural communities and citizens in the region, according to a media release issued by Gov. Mary Fallin’s office.

Much of the poultry operation growth is the result of Simmons Foods announcement last year the opening of a new chicken processing plant near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border in Gentry, Ark., set to open next year.

While the number of poultry operations has not reached record levels yet, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture data shows that the number of houses and chickens located at existing and newly licensed operations have increased significantly.

In Delaware County alone, the Department of Agriculture has issued licenses to 162 operators for 712 total chicken houses holding nearly 19.6 million birds, most of which go to Simmons Foods.  The next highest number of birds are in LeFlore County, mostly for Tyson Foods, with nearly 11.8 million chickens in 447 houses operated by 134 licensed operators, the data shows.

Since the recent increase in chicken houses in Delaware County began, the Tulsa World’s Kelly Bostian has reported residents who have had their water wells run dry and reported decreases in water and air quality. Some told the World that chicken houses were suddenly being built near their homes with little or no advanced notice.

Angry and concerned residents in northeastern Oklahoma began holding community meetings to get more information about the issue, but the growth of poultry operations in the area shows few signs of slowing, according to the most recent Department of Agriculture licensed poultry operation report.

The proposed coordinating council will bring together state and tribal agencies, scientific researchers and agricultural and community stakeholders at one table to maximize communication and access to information, Monday’s media release stated.

“Oklahoma has successfully used this model to look at a lot of complicated issues in the past, but this is the first time a coordinating council has been created in conjunction with one of Oklahoma’s federally recognized Indian tribes,” Fallin said. “This is a great opportunity to work cooperatively with the Cherokee Nation to focus on a regional issue that impacts both of our governments and citizens. Everyone needs to be at the same table and talking.”

The coordinating council will be co-chaired by Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese and Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill. It will include staff from the Cherokee Nation along with 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. 

“There has been a lot of discussion about the expansion of poultry operations in northeastern Oklahoma,” said Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. “The new Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth will bring together Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation officials with community and agricultural stakeholders so that there are opportunities for real communication on these issues.”

The coordinating council’s co-chairs will include input from community members, researchers and individuals in agricultural production. Its goal, the media release stated, is to ensure that accurate information is being shared between all stakeholders and to protect important natural resources and rural communities while supporting an important sector of the food chain and the agricultural industry.