Food & Drink

Cooks Venture tried to raise chickens better. Then 1M birds were killed.

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

Cooks Venture was supposed to be a difference maker in the chicken industry. 

Instead of the typical bird raised, slaughtered and sold for the masses at grocery stores, the company contracted farmers, also known as growers, to care for a special heritage breed that had access to outdoors and grew at a slower rate. Some consumers believe these changes improve the animal welfare and its taste, according to a study.

The Arkansas-based company, initially founded in 2019 by Matthew Wadiak, the former chief operating officer at Blue Apron, launched with a focus on regenerative agriculture and touted practices to combat climate change. The company paid growers more for raising a premium product. 

Cooks Venture chicken sold for about $5 per pound, more than double the typical grocery store prices. Despite the high price tag, customer reviews were glowing, with one Reddit user saying there was never a “woody or poor quality breast” in their years of purchasing the chicken. Another reviewer touted Cooks as “by far the best” on the market, according to the company’s website.

By 2022, Cooks secured $50 million in funding to expand its poultry genetics program and operations infrastructure. As early as last summer, the company was taking on new chicken growers.

One of these new recruits was Dustin Maybee, a former construction worker from Green Forest, Ark. He told Agriculture Dive he didn’t know much about Cooks before joining but liked the idea of raising free-range chickens. Becoming a farmer was important to him as it meant more time with family and less travel for work.

“Everything was going good,” Maybee said. Then he received the letter. 

In November, Cooks notified Maybee and other growers that it was experiencing a “financial difficulty” and would close by the end of the month if it couldn’t find an investor or adequate funding.

“If this happens, we are committed to winding down the company responsibly. All outstanding fees for services already rendered will be paid as part of this process,” Blake Evans, executive vice president of the company, wrote in the letter dated Nov. 17.

Soon reports of production layoffs emerged and growers began raising questions about the hordes of chickens on their land: Would this flock get picked up for processing? If not, what would happen? What about utility bills and mortgages? Would the birds starve once the feed and water ran dry? Is there another processor available to help? 

Arkansas state Sen. Bryan King, a long-time poultry grower, thought the state should step in and offer financial support to impacted farmers. He sought for an emergency declaration, raising animal welfare, disease and environmental concerns. 

But the governor’s office declined King’s request stating that “the proper role of government does not include state assumption of private debts,” according to a letter dated Dec. 8 from Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward.

Even though the state dismissed helping the growers financially, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Livestock and Poultry Commission assisted Cooks in the aftermath of the closure. The agency sent field workers to affected farms to smother the birds with foam to address animal welfare and disease concerns.

The deal was for the state to euthanize the birds and Cooks to handle the disposal and cleanup. This agreement led to a series of missteps and miscommunication that resulted in more than 1 million dead chickens across Northwest Arkansas and several upset, financially stressed poultry growers, who felt they were on the hook for cleaning Cooks’ mess.

Poor communication

The day before Thanksgiving, the livestock commission got a call from Cooks about the closure and what that meant for the state’s poultry growers. 

The commission “bent over backwards” through the break working nights and weekends, trying to help and answer questions from legislators and the public to the best of its ability, Ward said in testimony at a joint agriculture committee hearing on Feb. 9. But three growers in attendance countered this, saying communication from Cooks and the state was rather poor through the process.

Cooks, which was not present at the meeting, ignored multiple requests for comment from Agriculture Dive.  

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