By REBECCA HAZEN
Large parcels of property are being purchased in northwest Georgia counties with the intent of housing mega chicken houses, and officials and citizens are trying to plan ahead before it possibly happens in Dade County.
Dade County Executive Ted Rumley noted that he first became aware of the situation about two months ago. He was contacted by commissioners in Walker and Murray Counties. Rumley attended a multi-county meeting on the matter, held in Rome, where county officials, farmers and suppliers were in attendance.
According to Rumley, groups of Vietnamese are searching for and purchasing property.
“The way I understand it, they are going to bring in their own workers to live and work on the farm. That could affect our school system. They have been here looking for property, out on Sand Mountain,” Rumley said.
Rumley continued, “If you have one property that’s 300 to 400 acres, and you have 25 or 30 mega houses on it, it’s going to put the mom-and-pop farm out of business. These things will hold over 100,000 chickens,” Rumley said.
According to a Calhoun Times article published this past July, an application to the planning commission for a conditional use rezoning of county parcels 082-009 and 082-002 was submitted in early May by Tao Quoc Nguyen of Chatsworth.
The application was for a proposed 577-acre poultry operation on Evergreen Road near Resaca. The parcel was zoned A-1 agricultural.
“I would like to purchase this property in order to build 24 broiler chicken houses, approximately 50 by 600 feet to begin with, then as many as will comply with ULDC (Unified Land Development Code) regulations,” Nguyen said in the application.
Soon after, Gordon County Board of Commissioners voted to put a 60-day emergency moratorium into place. This was extended until December 2021, when the board voted to amend the ULDC, requiring all future chicken house operations to be approved directly by the commission.
Al Stone owns property across the street from the proposed chicken houses in Gordon County.
“Right across the street from our family farm, they were proposing to establish 24 mega chicken houses with the potential to put up to 64 houses. This would have been a health hazard to me and my wife. I would probably have lost $1 million in land value,” Stone said.
Through research and discussions with officials, Stone realized the large effect this would have, not just on his family and land.
“We have a higher concentration of chicken broiler houses in Gordon County than in the whole continental United States. I knew I needed to create an entity. I had no idea that hundreds of people would rally around the cause.
Stone helped to create Environmental Defense of Georgia, a grassroots organization made up of farmers and citizens.
In addition to the application made in Gordon County, the group’s website, edog.site, lists an application for two 500 acre tracts with 52 poultry houses in Murray County, filed in March 2021.
“The battle is not going away. We will not win the battle. We will slow it down. If we do nothing, and go silently into the night, that’s on us. I wish someone could come along and prove us wrong,” Stone said.
Wade Hutcheson, UGA Extension Agent for Walker County, helped to orchestrate the informational meeting that Rumley and other officials attended. The counties that are a part of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission were invited, in addition to farmers and suppliers.
Hutcheson noted that Shannon Whitfield, Chair of the Board of Commissioners in Walker County, attended the Gordon County meeting in which the moratorium was discussed.
The Sentinel reached out to Whitfield for comment but did not hear back from him before press time.
“It got his attention. To better prepare our board and zoning officials, he asked me to assist,” Hutcheson said. “We knew this was potentially going to affect more than just Walker County.”
Hutcheson arranged for University of Georgia poultry science department professor Casey Ritz to present.
“The meeting was a good opportunity for an exchange of fact-based knowledge and information. We dispelled some of the myths and got to the fact of the matter, and helped folks get prepared,” Hutcheson said.
Hutcheson continued, “One of the stronger points that I took away is that this is not a direction the industry is intending to take. This is a group of individuals that are looking to maximize their opportunity.”
Rumley noted that a committee may be formed to address the feedback.
“We don’t have anything that regulates chicken houses right now in the books. We have reached out to some farmers. They did have some good ideas,” Rumley said. “Maybe we will do a moratorium to get ahead of it. The other counties did that. It is something you have to plan for, and we have to find out what is really going on,” Rumley said.
Bob Woods is a Dade County poultry farmer and has been in the business for over 15 years.
“Chicken companies may decide that family-owned farms are no longer a viable interest for them. So, what does this mean to the family that has invested in a chicken farm? This could be a severely detrimental impact on a family that owns, operates and lives on their chicken farm,” Woods said.
Woods continued, “On one hand we still believe that America is the land of opportunity. However, on the other hand, we do have concern about the amount of American interests that are now foreign owned or operated by a foreign labor force.”
Woods noted that he spoke with other chicken farmers on the matter, and they presented some of the following recommendations to the commissioners:
1. Grandfather all existing family-owned chicken farms so that any future laws/legislation that pertain to the establishment of chicken farms will not apply to them.
2. Conduct research on large properties within Dade County to see if the county has land to support these commercially owned ventures.
3. Research the viability of establishing a law that mandates requiring a minimum of 10 acres for each individual chicken house.
“We need to have a viable dialogue. There are two sides to the coin here. I am looking out for the mom-and-pop chicken farmers because I am one of them. On the other hand, I understand if someone is sitting on 100 acres that they don’t know what to do with, and some cooperation offers them a huge amount of money, they have the authority to sell,” Woods said.