Rose, Oklahoma - There's a good chance the chicken you bought at the grocery store or ordered in a restaurant grew up in a dimly lit poultry house like the ones on Ray Goertz's 160-acre farm, where roughly 120,000 birds preen and peck and poop.
To America, it's dinner. To Goertz and the thousands of other farmers who have tied their fortunes to the success of the poultry industry, it's a living.
But that livelihood could be threatened by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's lawsuit accusing a dozen Arkansas processors of polluting the Illinois River watershed with bird waste. A federal trial is set for Sept. 21, and depending on the outcome, similar environmental lawsuits could be filed nationwide against the multi-billion-dollar poultry industry.
Goertz and his wife, Diana, have spent seven years raising birds in Rose, an eastern Oklahoma town that has more poultry than people. The 55-year-old grows chickens for Simmons Foods Inc., one of the companies accused in the lawsuit.
It is not clear what effect the litigation will have on the processors' operations, if any. But many farmers and residents in the dozens of small towns in Oklahoma dependant on the industry worry the companies could pull out of the state and threaten their way of life.
"This place we have is part of Ray's father's 200 acres," Diana Goertz said. "Losing this would be losing part of his heritage."
The lush, million-acre river valley that spans parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas is dotted with 1,800 poultry houses. More than 55,000 people in Oklahoma and Arkansas work in the poultry industry in one of the largest areas in the U.S. for producing broilers, or birds raised for meat. Together, they raised more than 8 billion pounds of turkeys and chickens last year.
Handling chicken waste has long been part of doing business in this watershed. For decades, farmers took clumps of bird droppings, bedding and feathers from the houses and spread them on their land as an inexpensive fertilizer for other crops. The two states sanctioned this by issuing the farmers permits, and the industry says no individual companies or farms have been accused of violating environmental regulations.
But Edmondson says the sheer volume of the waste spread on the land — estimated at 345,000 tons per year — has wreaked environmental havoc. Runoff carries bacteria into lakes and streams, where it threatens the health of tens of thousands of people who boat and camp in the valley every year. He says the industry took the least expensive way out when it could have burned the litter as energy, processed it into pellets or even composted it until the pathogens died.
Industry spokeswoman Jackie Cunningham says agriculture is an easy target, but other sources of pollution, such as small towns, golf courses, cattle ranches and nurseries, should be taken into account.
"There's this picture that's been painted that's just not true," Cunningham said. "People who don't understand our industry think that we just have chicken litter piled up in the countryside with nowhere to go."
The buildings on Goertz's farm are not grandpa's chicken coops. They are high-tech, temperature-controlled caverns where birds consume pellets and water piped through an automated system. The lighting is turned down in each house to keep the birds docile. The smell of ammonia wafts through the place, and feathers and dust are kicked up as the birds scuttle back and forth. Huge fans suck out the odors that can be smelled for miles on a calm day.
Goertz has nearly $630,000 invested in his operation, which can move a chicken from a hatchling to market in about 42 days.
"This here's my retirement," Ray Goertz says, sizing up his birds, and what he hopes will be his future.
In Colcord, another small town near the Arkansas state line, ranchers Al and Bev Saunders wait to see if they will continue to work as contract growers for Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, also named in the lawsuit
The couple have almost $750,000 tied up in their chicken operation, which in turn provides fertilizer to grow crops used for feed on their 560-acre cattle farm.
"If (the lawsuit) breaks the back of the small farmer, it's going to break the back of a lot of other people too, and we have so much invested," Bev Saunders said. "The dollar amount is one thing, but this is our home, this is our way of life, this is our culture."