FREMONT – A new poultry processing plant near Fremont is starting to ramp up operations, but debate still lingers about the additional barns that are needed to supply the final processing line.

Lincoln Premium Poultry External Affairs/Spokesperson Jessica Kolterman said the new plant south of Fremont will begin running “practice birds” this week.

“Just to make sure all of the equipment is working,” she said.

Lincoln Premium Poultry will be operating the plant that will eventually supply 2 million broiler chickens to Costco each week.

Kolterman said the company has recently hired 300 additional employees who will be running the processing lines. All of the new employees have been undergoing training in recent weeks and bring the current number of employees at the plant to 500.

“So, we have half of them hired,” Kolterman said. “As we ramp up the facility, we will hire additional employees.”

She expected the ramp up cycle to be about 45 weeks and eventually the plant will be running three shifts.

Construction on the multi-million dollar processing plant began in 2017. Construction on the barns that will be supplying the chickens began after that. The first birds were placed in barns this past December.

More barns will need to be built to supply the plant’s lines. Kolterman said the goal is to have all the barns in place by mid 2020.

“We have the majority of contracts in place. We just need to get through the various permits,” she said.

But the construction permits that need to accompany some of the proposed barns have drawn controversy.

During last month’s Saunders County Planning Commission meeting, Ryan Zakovec spoke in opposition to a proposed barn near Morse Bluff.

The matter was tabled to Sept. 9 and Zakovec, who lives just a 1/2 mile from the project, said he plans to attend again.

“I am hoping to go up with some new information,” he said.

Zakovec said he was a bit surprised by the size of the project that was being planned and has had time to do some research.

“Now, it’s been a month and I think a person has had time to get some facts,” he said.

Zakovec said he had a handful of concerns.

One of those concerns was that permit requested was for a 12-barn operation that would require trucks turning within an 1/8 mile of his place.

Zakovec questioned who would be responsible for road maintenance.

Increased truck traffic wasn’t his only concern.

“Maybe if we could knock it down by a third, if it was smaller, I wouldn’t worry about water quality as much,” he said.

He wants to get some answers.

“Can we reduce the size or come up with stipulations,” he said.

Proposed barns just off of Ashland Road on the Lancaster side of the county line are also drawing similar concerns.

Increased truck traffic and decreased water quality were voiced as concerns during a meeting at Raymond Central Public Schools. Letters of opposition to the construction permit have also been sent to the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

With this project, there have also been delays due to a road improvement request.

Saunders County Highway Superintendent Steve Mika has sent a letter to the Lancaster County Planning Commission saying that the County would not “participate in any financial funding to construct, improve or maintain any portion of Ashland Road” near the proposed site, citing the lack of direct benefit to Saunders County.

Kolterman said she was still hopeful they could work through these issues and concerns.

The construction permit is just one step in the process. She said each barn site must also get a Nebraska Environment and Energy permit.

That permit, she said, should be able to address the concerns about water quality.

“Any concerns with water quantity can be addressed through the local NRD permit process,” she added. “Before any barn goes in, there is an environmental permit and a well permit.”

As to the concern about increased traffic, Kolterman said truck traffic volume would depend on the type of barn – breading, hatchery, broiler.

She added that a poultry barn operation isn’t any different than any other type of farming operation.

“You’ll have the traffic as the traditional farming operation in every day Nebraska,” Kolterman said.

The Lincoln Premium Poultry spokesperson acknowledged that odor from the chicken barns has been one of the concerns repeatedly voiced by opponents.

Kolterman didn’t dismiss the possibility of odor, but said knowing where odor might drift is a part of the planning process.

The company uses an odor footprint tool through the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“The odor footprint gives us a definable picture of where the odor should reach 94 to 99 percent of the time,” she said.

One of the other arguments being voiced by the opposition to some of the barns, including the project near Morse Bluffs, deals with out of state investments. That outside investment, they contend, means that money will eventually be leaving the state.

Kolterman said outside investment is nothing new to farming in Nebraska.

She used the example of a farmer partnering with a seed company or an implement dealer that is based out of state.

“This is no different than what farmers in Nebraska have traditionally worked with or done any other day,” she said.

Kolterman contended there is local participation in these projects.

“The local farmer is involved in the specific project and working with the partner from out of state, who is also involved,” she said.

Investors might also help bring people to the state, Kolterman added, because if they bring in an out of state barn operators, those people will live here and could bring their families.

Kolterman said the goal of this project from the start has been to not only supply Costco with chickens, but to also help strengthen Nebraska’s economy.

“That is still happening,” she said.

A grand opening for the poultry processing plant in Fremont is expected to happen in October.

Zakovec said his opposition certainly isn’t aimed against agriculture or helping to expand the ag economy. He just wishes the county would have more specific regulations in place, especially when it comes to the size of a livestock operation.

“It’s too late for this one, but there is nothing on the books,” he said.

He would be an advocate for refining some of the regulations.

Until that can be done, however, Zakovec said he will be telling people to let their voices be heard about any concerns.

“Do your homework, get the facts and show up at the meeting,” he said.

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