Undoing A “Done Deal”

How We Kept a Chicken Company Out of Simpson County, KY

By Dr. Lee Spears

A little group of about a dozen of us managed to run the chicken plant out of town! It was a really inspiring grassroots effort that make me more convinced than ever that a few people or even one person can make a difference. We were up against the mayor, the “Industrial Board,” crooked bankers, greedy farmers, even the governor.

In 1994, Cagle “broiler” chicken company was said to be the greatest thing that could happen to our county. The governor came down to announce that the plant was coming, and there was a ceremony. The only dissenting voice was the editor of a tiny biweekly newspaper called The Local. The editor published a couple of editorials mildly raising questions. I called him and asked if there was any kind of group forming against the plant. He said no and said, “I’ve gone out on a limb about as far as I’m willing to by even criticizing the plant.” However, he gave me two or three names.

During the summer, a couple of anonymous letters to the editor were printed in The Local, full of facts about what chicken plants do to communities where they locate.The editor told me he honestly didn’t know who the anonymous writer – who signed himself “Deep Throat Chicken” – was. I then wrote a long opinion piece and took it to the editor of the “big” paper, the Daily News. The editor loved it and said it would be printed. He himself was against the plant.

Photo by Mike Rogala

The next day he called and told me the owner of the paper had forbidden him to print my piece because it could be “libelous.” I offered to buy the space but he still refused. That was when I first began to realize how many cowards there are in this county. I took the piece to The Local and they printed it. I am very proud that I was the first person in this county to put my name on a very strong public statement against the chicken plant.

My letter announced a public meeting. I had spent hours studying articles in journals and newspapers and preparing a talk. I centered on 4 points – which became the 4 points our group harped on continually: the bad effects on the environment, the plant workers, the farmers who “grow” for chicken plants, and the community. I noted we did not have a sufficient work force to support the plant and showed an article from the Atlanta Constitution about Cagle having hired illegal aliens in Georgia. (I did not mention animal rights because practically everyone here either farms or grew up on a farm).

The men coming into the meeting room had potbellies and visor caps – around here, the emblem of the redneck. Then, in walked the mayor, the head of the Industrial Board, and a couple of oily guys someone told me were bankers and some of the biggest crooks in town. There were about 30 people in all.

The head of the Industrial Board talked a few minutes about what a great thing Cagle would be for the community. Then the mayor said a few a few words about the benefit of Cagle and questioned the validity of my sources – The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, even the Farm Journal – a Bible around here! He said some chicken plants may cause problems but we should give Cagle the benefit of the doubt. I said the stakes – the quality of life in the community – were too high to gamble on. A few people agreed with me, timidly.

After the meeting, a Mennonite farmer said to my husband, “I’ll bet you don’t even eat meat.” He said, “No, I don’t, but that isn’t the issue here.” I said the workers were surrounded all day by gruesome sights – and I described the way the chickens die. Apparently, they could tell that I thought there was something wrong with animal abuse and therefore wasn’t one of them. One of the men was really angry about the plant but said it was a “done deal.”

Two days after the newspaper articles came out about our meeting, a Simpson county woman named Bonnie called to encourage me in my fight. She had seen first hand what these plants had done to towns in Arkansas, but she refused to speak out because she didn’t want to “offend anyone”! Later, I found out that she and her husband own a rubber company and are multimillionaires. (One of our neighbors told me that she too was against the plant but her family wasn’t going to say anything because “we’ve got corn to sell.” This wealthy family were willing to see the community where their great grandparents had grown up go down the toilet for a few dollars.)

When I sent Bonnie articles from my research, I also enclosed a note saying that if people are afraid to use their freedom of speech by speaking out against things they know are wrong, they might as well live in a third world dictatorship. Bonnie eventually put up several thousand dollars to pay for newspaper ads against Cagle, and she stuffed countless envelopes, making us promise not to tell anyone!

A few weeks later, “Deep Throat Chicken” revealed himself. He was our vet, Dr. Maloney! He knew what a chicken plant would do to the town but at this time he wasn’t quite ready to speak out under his real name because most of his clients are farmers. Very shortly, however, he assumed leadership of our group – which we named Friends of Drake’s Creek- -spoke publicly to the media, and by December was standing in front of City Hall handing out anti-chicken plant fliers!

“I question whether we have 1,600 people in our county of 15,000 who would be willing to work in a chicken slaughterhouse, surrounded by the sights and smells of bleeding, dying birds, dead bodies, blood, and insides.”

Lee Spears, The Local 7/27/94.

Late in the summer, I turned the campaign leadership over to Steve Maloney. He knew how to talk to these people much better than my husband and I did. We are very private people, we have no connection with farming, and we do not belong to a church. All this made us outsiders that not everyone trusted.

With private donations, mainly from Bonnie, the Friends of Drake’s Creek hired a lawyer, a hydrologist, and a geologist. The geologist wrote up reports on what the wastewater and pollution from the plant would do to the water sources in our karst landscape, which is riddled with caves and sinkholes. In November, Dr. Maloney, the editor of The Local, a city commissioner, and a local citizen who was pro-chicken plant paid a surprise visit to Cagle’s Macon, Georgia plant. Cagle’s showed them through the place, and then they talked with people who lived near the plant and with some local chicken “growers.”

When they came back, Dan, the editor, wrote a long article for The Local about their visit. He tried to be unbiased but expressed grave doubts about whether many people in this county would want to work in one of those plants. He brought out that the “growers” were not making money and that chicken catchers would bring a dangerous element into this county. I think the last point scared the pants off some of our citizens.

On December 7, a town meeting was held to debate the Cagle issue. Our side brought in witnesses including our hydrologist; our lawyer (who had dug up dirt on other Cagle operations); the present of the Simpson County PTA, who was concerned about the effect of large numbers of immigrants on the schools; a former Cagle “grower” who went bankrupt; a social-work professor, and several women who had become disabled from working in chicken slaughter plants. Their stories were really heartbreaking. Afterward, the crook who is head of the Industrial Board said he wanted to thank these ladies, who had helped prepare some of the chicken he so enjoyed at picnics!

The mayor alienated a lot of people by implying that many residents of this area couldn’t do any better than work in a slaughter plant. Later, the black city councilman would tell the paper that the pro-Cagle forces approached him, telling him that “his people” would benefit from these wretched jobs! All of this proves what our movement has been saying – oppressors of racial minorities, poor people, women, and animals are cut from the same cloth.

Cagle reps testified about what great things their company would do for this county’s economy. It was announced that exactly one week later, the city commission would vote on whether to provide wastewater treatment service for Cagle, as they had practically promised.

Before the commission meeting, the Friends of Drake’s Creek sent mailings to nearly the whole county, asking people to call the city commissioners. The State got into the act, pushing for the chicken plant, because they are eager to get this obscene contagion started in Kentucky in a big way.

The next Monday night, my husband Terry was already back from the city commissioner meeting, and he was elated. The commission had voted 4 to 1 (the “1” was the mayor) to take back every promise that had been made to Cagle! One commissioner said, “We have to decide: Do we want Cagle in Simpson County?” Then another commissioner proposed (1) that any offers the city of Franklin had made to Cagle be withdrawn, (2) that the city not help build a wastewater treatment plant for Cagle, and (3) that the city not extend sewer service to the proposed plant site. The Cagle rep got up and slammed out of the room. One of the Friends of Drake’s Creek came up to Terry and said, “I want to shake your hand. If you and your wife hadn’t started all this, tonight might never have happened.”

You can imagine our horror when, in January 1995, Cagle announced they “had come here to do business and intend to do just that.” How many ways are there to say “Hit the road”? Friends of Drakes Creek kept up the newspaper ads and in February sent to every household in the county a circular with 24 objections to a chicken plant, plus a postage-paid survey card so every house could vote on whether we should let Cagle come in. 697 cards were returned – 177 for Cagle and 520 against.

Finally, Cagle asked the city to give them free easement along miles of city streets to let them run their own private pipeline from the slaughter plant site to the city sewer plant. The issue was to be decided at the April 3 city commissioners meeting, and both sides lobbied intensely. Friends of Drake’s Creek again sent out mass mailings urging people to write and call their commissioners. The vote went 3 to 2 against Cagle.

About a week ago, a newspaper story reported that Cagle’s Macon, Georgia plant had been cited for OSHA violations. After one worker’s fingers were partly cut off and another’s leg was cut off by machines, OSHA investigated and found, among other violations, an exit blocked by a pile of chicken corpses.

If I were giving advice to others in a situation similar to ours, I would tell them:

  1. The less economically depressed your area is, the greater your chance for success.
  2. You need only a few people to run a great campaign, but they must be dedicated and willing to give a lot of time.
  3. You need money to pay for ads, fliers, and mailings, and to hire experts, because
  4. You’ll need to educate, educate, educate the public. Keep raising the same key questions, and don’t give up!

For more information contact: Dr. Lee Spears, PO Box 74, Franklin, KY 42135 (office ph: 502-745-5778).