A Pennsylvania cage-free hen house supports 6,000 birds for the Organic Valley Coop Similar designs are being proposed in Rio Grande and Saguache Counties.
Photo courtesy of the Cornucopia Institute
Courier staff writer
DEL NORTE — Rio Grande County commissioners (RGCC) are set to learn more about the poultry business before granting Merlin Yost permission to start an organic chicken egg operation in Del Norte.
Yost presented his case and answered questions from a concerned public and RGCC Doug Davie and Karla Shriver on Wednesday morning, but to no avail. Shriver seconded a Davie motion to table the matter for 30 days so they and their staff can further research the proposed operation and how the Yost decision will affect similar permit applications in the future.
“I’m sure 30 days is ample,” Shriver said. ‘We want to be fair.”
Davie added, “We need to sort this confusion out.”
RGCC Pam Bricker was absent from the meeting.
Yost, a construction contractor, proposes to raise 5,000 hens using a 9,000 square-foot barn with an outdoor pasture, bringing the total footprint to three-fourths of an acre located at North Rio Grande County Road 6 West for the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley Co-op. On Tuesday, March 12, the Rio Grande County Planning Commission (RGCPC) unanimously recommended the RGCC approve the conditional use permit application, but not without reservation.
RGCPC member Norman Slade expressed concerns about the use of agricultural chemicals from the surrounding farm areas when the decision to recommend was made earlier this month, and he was present yesterday morning to reiterate his position.
“I’m not opposed to an organic chicken farm,” said Slade, who lives a quarter mile north of the proposed operation. “I just think it should be in another part of the county.”
The overall concern about the agricultural chemicals was the problems it could cause between neighbors.
“Farmers are going to have to spray because they have to,” said Elizabeth Nash, who also shared stories about her experience with a small chicken operation years ago. “I don’t want to see problems.”
In response, Yost presented both the RGCC and the public with an Adjoining Land Use Verification form, a type of affidavit to help conventional and organic farmers communicate and keep record of production techniques.
“I’m not an organic farmer,” said neighboring farmer Wade McGraw. “It is going to start causing problems.”
Monte Vista resident Virginia Christensen agreed. “On a five acre parcel, there are not adequate buffer zones to allow neighboring non-organic farmers, or the county weed spray applicators, space to utilize normal historical farming practices.”
Other concerns from the community included:
• Chicken manure odors
• Using a five-acre parcel designated for residential purposes for an industrial operation
• Varmint control
• An increase in heavy truck traffic
• Water contamination, particularly in the Rio Grande Canal
• Waste run off
• Air quality
• Visual impacts
• Property devaluation
• Inappropriate barn, pasture and property distances
• Future dwelling development
• Disease control
• Dust mitigation
• Dead animal disposal
• Inorganic pastures
• Fly infestations
• Water acquisition
“The odor is unreal,” Nash said. “You have to keep it clean. We learned an awful lot.”
The Organic Valley Co-op requires the manure and chicken carcasses are cleaned or removed from the operation annually.
According to Yost’s conditional use permit application, the Bovan Brown hens will require 1.75 square-feet per bird with an additional five square-feet per bird of outdoor access. The Colorado Department of Agriculture (USDA) will certify the hen housing and pasture, and it will also meet Organic Valley Co-op specifications. The hens will not be confined to cages, but rather allowed to “free range” inside the barn
and outdoors in the pasture comprised of native grasses and alfalfa. During the winter, the hens will only have access to the pasture if weather is conducive, but will have access to natural light due to required barn windows.
The flock will eat certified organic feed, which a semi-truck will deliver from outside of the state, according the permit application. The hens should consume about 240 gallons of water per day and, according to the Division of Water Resources, between 96,725 to 193,450 gallons annually. This is comparable to 23 beef cows and does include water needed for cleaning. The San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District is in a position to provide Yost augmentation water.
Organic Valley Co-op will market the eggs, according to the permit application. The company has an established Denver and Front Range market. Once a week, the company will have a refrigerated truck pick up the eggs and deliver the product to its Denver location. There, the eggs will be processed, graded, washed and packaged for delivery to grocery stores. A small amount of eggs might be rejected due to extra large size, which could be sold at local Valley markets.
Chicken manure, which is considered a valuable chicken by-product for its high nitrogen content, will be collected and transported to a compost area in Saguache County along with chickens that will be euthanized at the end of their 48 to 50 week egg-laying career. Yost said, however, another option is to allow Campbell’s Soup to collect the chickens while they are still alive for a fee.
Tonight, the Saguache County planning commission will hear a similar proposal from David and Candace Toews and Royce and Tamara Nickel at 5 p.m. They are looking to start Organic Valley Farms egg operation with 10,000 hens.
The RGCC will make a decision on the Yost permit Wednesday, April 25 at 11:15 a.m.