Food & Drink

After collapse of Cooks Venture, chicken farmers look for answers

Editor’s note: This is part two of a series on what happened when Cooks Venture suddenly ceased operations in Arkansas. Click here for part one.

In December, several trucks carrying heavy foaming equipment idled outside of Lance Logan’s Alpena, Ark. farm, blocking the roads. The standoff between the grower and the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, went on for hours. 

Logan said he couldn’t trust Cooks nor the state. He had just signed a three-year contract and invested a lot of money to update one of his chicken houses shortly before the company sent its letter, Logan said in testimony at a joint agriculture committee hearing on Feb. 9.

“I’m told they’re going to kill all my chickens and leave them on my place in the houses to rot, or I could bury them,” Logan testified. “I have no way of burying 102,000 chickens. And my chickens weigh probably close to 5 pounds. So I locked the gates, and I wouldn’t let them foam my chickens until they told me a way to haul the chickens off.”

Patrick Fisk, director of the livestock commission, confronted Logan’s challenge. In a testimony, Logan said Fisk called him and cast blame for any dead birds on the property.

“This is not on me,” Logan said. “I would let them foam the chickens as long as they had trucks to haul them off. That’s all I was stating for two and a half weeks.”

At one point, Landon Logan, a poultry grower and Lance’s brother, showed up carrying a handgun on his hip, the Madison County Record reported Jan. 31. A supervisor alleged the gun was in full sight and created a safety risk for the workers, but Lance Logan insisted it was a concealed weapon.

“There’s been some things put in the newspapers and things said that’s not true,” Lance Logan said in testimony.

Eventually, a dumpster truck arrived and Lance Logan allowed the field workers to foam his birds. He received a partial payment from Cooks for his services.

“I had talked to other growers, and they still had all these chickens rotting in their houses. Some of them still have them in their houses,” Lance Logan said. “And these growers don’t have a way to get rid of them.”

The state’s response and moving forward

At the hearing, Arkansas lawmakers tried to get clarity on the situation, including the state’s role in the dispute between Cooks and its contract poultry growers, and where things went south.

Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward and Fisk expressed sympathy to the affected growers and explained how the department acted in the best interest of the state and the poultry industry. 

“The company called me and said they are flat-out broke. They have no money for feed. The birds will resort to cannibalism,” Fisk told lawmakers.

In a letter to a grower, Cooks indicated that it was responsible for the live birds and agreed to help in the removal process once the test results came back negative for highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as bird flu.

“We just tried to step in to try to eliminate any risk of [avian influenza] or the spread of disease in the state,” Fisk said in reference to avian influenza.

The disease, which can be fatal to chickens and in rare cases be transmitted to humans, has ravaged the poultry industry in recent years, disrupting markets and production. Officials have depopulated about 82 million birds across 47 states in the past two years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nine farms that raised chickens for Cooks were in an HPAI zone, according to a letter from the livestock commission, meaning they were within a 25-mile radius of farms that had recently tested positive for the virus and were under state restrictions that limited transportation.

Part of the commission’s role is to control, suppress and eradicate animal diseases and pests, according to Arkansas Statute 2-33-107. The department also has full authority over the supervision of livestock and poultry sanitation work.

The livestock commission maintained a supervisory role over the cleanup, Fisk said. The department had the funds and resources to eradicate but not dispose of the million or so birds in the northwest region of the state, Fisk said, “I put that onus on Cooks.”

The growers had two options for disposal: They could either bury the birds or compost them inside the chicken houses. There were some issues that the department addressed with certain growers, Fisk said, but the majority of birds were composted correctly.

The state considered other options before foaming the chickens. 

Fisk said the state commission sought another company or processor to take the birds, but no one was interested. The chickens were considered “compromised” and losing weight without feed.

“We could not find a processor willing to take those birds, that’s when we elected to depopulate,” Fisk said.

Throughout the hearing, state lawmakers expressed a range of concerns. Some blamed Cooks, while others saw flaws in the department’s actions.

“None of this would have happened if Cooks wouldn’t have misrepresented the contract, broke the contract or had any financial issues on their part,” state Sen. Tyler Dees said.

No Cooks representatives were present at the hearing to defend themselves.

State Sen. Matt Stone questioned why the commission elected to not complete the entire disposal process if the goal was to protect the industry from a disease outbreak.

“Cooks has come and gone,” Stone said. “Why would the balance of the process fall back on the poultry grower who is already distressed because they got into an almost bankrupt situation?”

Fisk said the commission lacked the proper equipment and would be inclined to take on those duties if the “funding and resources” were available.

“If you didn’t have the funding, why would the poultry growers themselves have the funding,” Stone asked.

“Fair enough,” Fisk replied.

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