SHOALS – What Surry County Commissioner Paul Johnson said recently about chicken farmers is true.
In an interview earlier this month, he defended them. Some property owners have converted their land into what many residents here describe as an industrial-style method of chicken farming – with chicken houses that cost more than $200,000 each capable of packing together as many as 25,000 chickens.
“They’ve lived here all their lives. They pay their taxes. They have a right to do what they want with their land as long as it’s within the law,” Johnson said.
At roughly 25,000 square feet, each chicken house at capacity provides roughly 1 square foot for each chicken to eat, live and defecate before they are taken to a processing plant to be slaughtered and sent to grocery stores.
Surry County has seen a proliferation of such chicken farms. More than 27 million broiler chickens were being produced in Surry, according to a 2012 census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up from 20 million in 2007.
Recently, the stench from chicken farms got the attention of state park officials.
Dave Cook, the North District superintendent of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, and other state park officials last month visited the Pilot Mountain State Park corridor trail, a 6.6-mile trail from the Yadkin River to the base of the mountain.
“It was very cold and the wind was light so these were probably not the optimal conditions to detect the odor,” Cook said in an email provided to the Winston-Salem Journal. “However, we all could smell it lightly when we were down in one draw.” And conditions will likely worsen when summer arrives. “Probably, warmer weather and wind from the right direction would have elevated the odor.”
Some residents here refer to these chicken farms as industrial operations. They go beyond the traditional agricultural character of Surry, they say. More important, they say, such chicken farms emit the unbearable stench of death, destroy property values and pose health risks.
Supporters such as Johnson say that farming is the Surry way.
But what Johnson said of chicken farmers can also be said of countless property owners who have lived in Surry, paid taxes and say they have a right to live on their land as they wish – without being subjected to an industrial-style chicken-farm operation next door.
A year after four massive chicken houses were installed in their neighborhood, some property owners off Ellis Hardy Road wonder what happened to their right to a decent quality of life – and whether anyone will represent them as taxpayers.
They grapple with the thought that just about everything they have worked for so many years has been taken by a chicken factory.
Isolation takes its toll, too.
They feel as if they’ve been made the villain in their own community. Because they speak against industrial-style chicken farms, some folks seem to assume that they oppose any type of agriculture. Nothing could be further from the truth, they say.
Caught in a bad spot
Ricky and Donna Bryant live on Ellis Hardy Road – next to four chicken houses that began operating last year.
By mid-afternoon, Ricky Bryant leaves his brick ranch house to work the second shift at a tobacco manufacturer as a mechanic fixing cigarette-packing machines.
He and Donna Bryant had planned to retire here.
The home’s paid for.
They’ve lived here for 30 years.
And they’ve paid property taxes to Surry County all those years.
Since the chicken houses began operating last year, they think about getting out, she said. But that’s not a real option. Selling the property would likely come at a financial loss compared to what it was worth before the property next to theirs was converted for industrial-style farming.
“I figure nobody would buy it,” Donna Bryant said last week.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concentrated feeding operations similar to those next to the Bryants produce several pollutants. Manure and wastewater can emit nitrogen and phosphorus, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics and ammonia.
“It’s indescribable,” she said, referring to the stench.
“I just never dreamed it would be this bad,” she said. “I never dreamed the smell could get inside my home.”
Some days are worse than others.
“A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday, it was really pretty outside so I decided I’d go out in the yard and pick up dead limbs and stuff and throw them out and away. And when I got outside – I’m allergic to some of this stuff – and if I don’t have on goggles and a mask with a carbon filter I get sick, like I’m allergic to some of this stuff.
“I wasn’t even out there an hour, I don’t think, and my eyes just started burning. And the smell wasn’t ‘that bad’ that day down there. But my eyes were burning and I could tell my throat was getting congested,” Bryant said.
‘It just smells like pure crap’
The Bryants aren’t alone.
Adjacent to the same chicken farming operation, two other families – Terry and Mary Marshall, and Wayne and Angie Frye – also pay taxes to Surry County.
Wayne Frye doesn’t need to read environmental jargon from the EPA about pollutants that can float on to his property by air or flow into the ground by wastewater. He knows firsthand.
Frye’s floodlight tells the story.
At a recent nighttime meeting of about 25 homeowners concerned about what they view as the unchecked proliferation of intensive chicken-farming operations, Frye brought the floodlight. As luck – or misfortunate – would have it, that night provided good conditions for the stench from an adjacent farm to flow.
Standing in his neighbor’s front yard, Ricky Bryant pierced the black night with a singular white beam that shot from his handheld light to the top of a tall tree standing many feet away, on the other side of the yard.
Floating through the beam were particles from those chicken houses. It looked as though someone had just aired out some musty quilts. As particles flickered, a putrid odor lingered. It was unlike the well-known odor of cow manure or fertilizer, a traditional farm odor that nobody at the meeting complained about.
“My wife describes it as death,” Frye said, referring to the stench of chicken farm operations.
“To me it smells like, I don’t know – sweat? … And then the other night when I was coming home from work, I was telling Ricky: To me it just smells like pure crap,” Frye said.
Not looking forward to summer
In a way, the Marshalls deal with the stench nonstop.
“You think about it when you go to bed. You think about it when you wake up. You try not to think about it during the day, but even a simple drive up the street is a reminder that these gigantic buildings are here to stay,” Terry Marshall said.
These are just some of the emotions they go through, at a time when they thought they would retire quietly among the quaint woodlands that used to surround their Surry home.
Like some of their neighbors, the Marshalls have lived here – and paid taxes here – for decades. They’re frustrated because they don't want to stay here any longer. But they feel like they’re trapped.
On a social media website, those who defend chicken farm operations have told them to leave.
“There are few who can just walk away from their life savings, but yet it is stated in such a matter of fact way that we should leave. How effortlessly people comment, ‘Well, if you don't like it, just move.’ It’s not that easy after 30 years,” Mary Marshall said.
And the stench comes and goes whenever it wants to.
“Odor, flies, darkling beetles – expectation that it will be far worse this summer: We never expected it to be as bad as it has been this winter and so watching the spring turn into summer will not be a welcome change,” he said.
Next Sunday: Property owners fed up with the stench run into stone walls.