Missouri town offers clues about life with a Tyson plant

In this file photo from Oct. 28, 2009, a Tyson Foods, Inc., truck is parked at a food warehouse in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

MONETT, MO. — Having a Tyson poultry plant in your town means trucks carrying chickens rolling past you on the highway. It means scores of long, narrow chicken houses dotting the countryside.

Outside the central processing plant, some say it smells. Others are just as adamant it doesn’t.

Inside, an endless line of chickens are slaughtered, stripped of their feathers and guts, and sent through the building on hangers and conveyor belts to be cut, marinated and packaged on their way to dinner tables across the country.

As Tyson Foods considers where to place a chicken plant in Kansas, a small city in southwest Missouri shows what life is like alongside the poultry giant.

The Wichita Eagle spent three days in Monett, a city of 9,000 about an hour’s drive southwest of Springfield. Interviews with residents, civic leaders, and Tyson officials provide clues about what Sedgwick County could expect if it is selected for a plant. Tyson granted a request to tour its facilities, but didn’t allow photography during the tour.

The visit came after Tyson selected Sedgwick, Cloud and Montgomery counties as finalists for a chicken complex – and after it encountered strong opposition in Tonganoxie.

Everything Tyson does is big here in Monett. Tyson’s plant – the company calls it a complex because of its multiple parts – employs more than 700. Tens of millions of chickens are hatched, grown and slaughtered each year.

The operation the company is considering in Kansas would be even bigger – a $320 million investment with 1,600 jobs. It would include a processing facility, a hatchery and feed mill. In total, the plant would be capable of processing about 1.25 million chickens a week.

On the whole, Monett residents appear grateful for the plant. Even those who voice environmental concerns – a chemical spill in 2014 killed thousands of fish – acknowledge Tyson’s charitable giving: helping pay for a July 4th celebration, chipping in to pay for a new YMCA or sending a truck with food to Texas after the recent hurricane.

And for hundreds of workers, Tyson offers a secure blue-collar job in a world where they are increasingly scarce. Some families have multiple members working at the plant.

In 2015, Tyson set a starting wage floor at chicken plants of $10 an hour. The company had previously said starting pay at the Tonganoxie facility would likely be $13 to $15 an hour, and a company spokesman said he had no reason to believe that would be different at another Kansas site.

Araseli Salas, who has four children, worked in the Monett plant from 2007 to 2011. She returned last year to work as a lead, ensuring the line is running smoothly and helping to coordinate workers. The Eagle asked to interview workers, and Tyson offered Salas, who spoke to a reporter as a company spokesman watched.

Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she’s done by 2:45 p.m., in time to pick up the kids from school.

“I decided to give it a try,” Salas said. “My mom works here. She’s been working here for 20 years.”

Chicken begin their lives at the hatchery, about a mile from Tyson’s central processing facility. About 34 people work there compared with the 240 who make up a shift at processing, where there are two production shifts and one sanitation shift each day.

The cycle never stops: About 7 million eggs sit in the hatchery at any given moment.

The eggs are placed in incubators designed to simulate how a hen would care for an egg. A single incubator holds about 93,000 eggs, and each egg takes about 21 days to incubate.

Tyson recruits family farmers on a contract basis to house and feed the chicks after they hatch.

It expects to need about 60 such farms to support the complex that has been proposed in Kansas, said Worth Sparkman, a company spokesman. The company also will need farms to raise hens and other farms where the hens lay eggs.

In total, the complex would need about 75 farms.

“It’s a couple that wants to be in agriculture for the long haul,” said David Young, the live production manager at Tyson in Monett. “And usually it’s going to be something where one of them is full time on the farm and the other spouse will work in town or do something like that.”

Growing is not designed to be a sole source of income for a farmer, Young said, but it offers income stability. Exactly how much a farmer can make varies depending on how many houses they have and the length of the contracts, Sparkman said, adding that he couldn’t provide an average cash flow for a farm.

At Grant Raley’s farm west of Monett, three buildings can hold a combined 132,000 chickens at a time. They’re kept there for a month or more, depending on how large Tyson wants the chickens.

The long and narrow buildings are dim inside and don’t have windows, though air slats let in some natural light. Fans blow to create a “tunnel” of air from one end to the other. Water and feed lines run the length of the building.

When the chickens arrive, the buildings are kept at 90 degrees. By the time they’re ready to depart, the temperatures are as low as 72 degrees. The chickens have difficulty regulating their body temperature during the first couple weeks of life.

“The whole idea is to keep that chick as comfortable as possible,” Raley said. “A happy chicken grows.”

When a reporter visited on Wednesday, the chickens had been on the farm for 15 or 16 days.

As Raley walked the length of the house, one chicken wasn’t running as fast. He picked it up. One of its legs wasn’t working quite right, a sign of potential infection. Based on its size, it hadn’t been eating.

Raley killed it on the spot.

“If you have a bird that can’t get to food and water, it’s more humane to euthanize that bird rather than let its brothers and sisters peck him to death in another day when they get him down,” Young said. He added that 97 percent to 98 percent of birds survive their time on the farm.

The next step for those chickens is the processing plant. The heart of Tyson’s operation is in an industrialized area of Monett, surrounded by other large companies. The chickens are brought to the facility on trucks, their feathers ruffling in the wind.

Tyson did not show an Eagle reporter the slaughter of the birds during a tour. The company says it follows National Chicken Council guidelines designed to decrease suffering, which include anesthetizing the animals with an electric current before they are killed by cutting their throats.

In 2016, Tyson fired 10 workers in Virginia over mistreatment of chickens, the Associated Press reported. The company also said at the time it would test new slaughter methods, including suffocation by carbon dioxide rather than cutting animals’ throats.

On Wednesday, some of the chickens moving through the plant would ultimately end up as rotisserie chickens – the kind you might buy in a deli or supermarket. After slaughter and the removal of their internal organs and feathers, they were injected with marinade and given a dry rub. One worker tied the legs of each bird together in a quick, practiced stroke.

Tom Kerr, 72, started at Tyson in 1984 and left in 2007. He still lives in Monett, and his memories of the plant are vivid.

“A supervisor … would stand there with a stopwatch, and everybody would grab a chicken – get ready – and ‘Hang them on!’ and we’d go down through there,” Kerr said.

Kerr hung about 30 chickens a minute, for about 23 years – placing the chickens onto hooks that hold them aloft as they move through the facility.

Workers would dream during their shifts, he said, “because it’s monotonous.”

Does it smell?

Whether there is a smell depends on what you’re talking about and who you talk to.

The chicken houses can smell at times.

“Chickens poop. So there’s management of that manure through the process side of it. So can you pick up a chicken manure smell on a given day on a farm? Absolutely,” Young, Tyson’s live production manager, said.

Most of his neighbors were fine with his chicken houses, Raley said. When he added a third one, Missouri regulations required him to send letters to all his neighbors. Only one objected, he said.

Still, he wasn’t a fan of the letter requirement. “All that does is stir up strife in my opinion,” he said.

Mark Ingram, a retired commercial pilot, lives near Monett on 40 acres that includes a runway he uses to fly a small plane. A decade ago, he sued in state court over four commercial chicken houses installed near his property.

A judge ruled Ingram’s enjoyment of his property had been substantially harmed by dust and chicken dander blowing onto his property and by “noxious and offensive” odors. A $25,000 judgment was entered against one of the defendants.

“The odor, it’s not bad all the time,” Ingram said of chicken houses. “But when it’s bad, it’s bad.”

At the plant, Tyson officials say they do all they can to limit odor.

The plant used to store blood for a day and then pump it into a truck to be hauled away. That process, which took 30 minutes, “stunk to high heaven,” Young said.

Now, Tyson uses a patented process that coagulates the blood and then presses it onto trucks that haul out feathers. The blood leaves the same day.

“I’m looking at 40 years of history and it probably smelled a lot more agricultural than it does today because we’ve had to evolve and change,” Young said.

Jennifer Conner, who lives just outside Monett, said it does smell at times.

“There’s obviously an odor,” Conner said. “I run the city and that’s one of my loops to go around there, so it definitely affects the air quality and the aesthetics.”

But Conner, who works for the Sierra Club, is more concerned with the water. Tyson pleaded guilty in September to violating the federal Clean Water Act at its Monett facility.

A tank storing an acidic liquid food supplement at Tyson’s feed mill began leaking in May 2014 into a secondary containment area. The company hired a contractor to clean up the supplement, known as aliment, according to a plea agreement.

The contractor unloaded the aliment into Tyson’s own wastewater pre-treatment system, which treats the water before it flows into Monett’s treatment system. Tyson’s pre-treatment system wasn’t designed to handle the aliment.

Aliment that flowed into Monett’s treatment system killed bacteria used to reduce ammonia in water discharged from the treatment system into a creek. That led to the death of some 108,000 fish.

“Obviously, I’m concerned about the fish kill and the surface water, but there are a lot of people in this area that depend on well water,” Conner said.

Under a plea agreement, Tyson agreed to pay a $2 million fine and is on probation for two years. It must also pay $500,000 to maintain and restore waters in the Monett area. The company must hire a third-party auditor to examine its poultry facilities nationwide to assess compliance with federal clean water and hazardous waste laws.

Tyson officials said the spill was an aberration.

“Monett had 20 years of perfect compliance prior to that incident and has been perfect since,” Young said.

What is Tyson like to have in town?

Conner, who is skeptical of the company’s environmental record and does not eat Tyson chicken, is a beneficiary of Tyson.

She helped start a farmers market a few years ago. Construction is now under way downtown on a pavilion for the market, paid for by Tyson.

“They do a lot for the community but I think having clean water is a very basic building block of a thriving community, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have anything,” Conner said.

Local leaders and residents praised the company’s charitable giving.

Jeff Meredith, director of the Monett Chamber of Commerce, estimated the organization probably gets close to $10,000 a year from Tyson.

Following the recent hurricane in Texas, Tyson took a truck of donations to Houston – something mentioned by several people.

“They’re very generous with what they have, and I really appreciate that,” said Sheila Harris, a real estate agent.

Tyson also anchors hundreds of jobs. The total number of people employed by the company has declined from closer to 1,000 decades ago to about 700 today through mechanization, but employment is relatively steady on any given year.

The company offers programs to help workers earn their GED or learn English if they choose. Sparkman, the Tyson spokesman, said the company doesn’t track the number of non-English speakers at its plants, but said work materials are translated into several languages.

Tyson and other industries have contributed to demographic changes in the area over the past 20 years. In 1990, Hispanics made up 0.6 percent of the population in Barry County, where Monett is located.

In 2016, the percentage of Hispanic or Latino residents had risen to 9.2 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Monett has embraced the diversity, Meredith said.

“If you have a lot of racists there, you will have issues,” Meredith said of whatever site Tyson chooses in Kansas.

Mark Nelson, the senior executive vice president at Community National Bank in Monett, said some of the Hispanic families have been in the community for three or four generations.

“If you have 1,600 employees coming to a town, your major deal is going to be, ‘OK, how is that not only going to impact the school system, but also is the city set up to be able to provide that kind of economic help?’ Because you now are going to have more fire, more police, more hospital and medical facilities that you’re going to need,” Nelson said.

“You’re going to have to have people who are able to converse in those languages – at all of those facilities, not just your school.”

If Tyson builds a chicken processing plant in Kansas, it would be the company’s first in 20 years. Tyson acquired a number of chicken facilities in the 1990s.

Company and Kansas officials say thousands of workers in the area would find the starting pay of $13 to $15 an hour attractive and say critics overstate the potential environmental and community problems.

Tyson has been cited in the past for workplace safety violations. Federal authorities cited a Texas plant last year after a worker’s finger was amputated after becoming stuck in a conveyor belt. Inspectors also found other violations and the company was fined more than $260,000.

Other citations have been issued in recent years to facilities in Hutchinson; Concordia, Mo.; Dakota City, Neb.; and Buffalo, N.Y.

In April, Tyson said it was hiring at least 25 poultry plant trainers companywide, adding to the 260 trainers hired since 2015. It also committed to allowing workers to take restroom breaks as needed and to reducing injuries and illnesses by 15 percent year over year.

“We’ve always been committed to supporting our employees and have sound workplace practices in place, but also want to do better. That’s why we’re taking steps that include expanding training, improving workplace safety and compensation, increasing transparency and helping workers with life skills,” Noel White, chief operations officer at Tyson Foods, said in a statement at the time.

Kerr is pleased he spent most of his working life at Tyson.

Yes, there were challenges, such as when the plant added a second shift and he had difficulty imagining how Tyson would ever find enough workers. Or how the repetitive nature of the work could lead to carpal tunnel among workers, he said.

But the insurance was good, and investment options helped him retire comfortably, he said. And he was always home in the evenings with his wife.

“They took pretty good care of the employees,” he said.

But Conner cautioned other communities that may be looking at Tyson.

“I would be thinking about what you specifically want out of a company like Tyson coming to your community,” Conner said. “Because jobs are great, but jobs do not alone a thriving community make.”