Supporters of chicken operations here just want a chance

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All Louis Lengacher wants is a chance.

A chance to give his side of the issue of two egg laying operations locating in Switzerland County.

A chance to show residents that those involved in the planning of the operations want to be good neighbors and good members of the community.

A chance to get correct information out so that everyone has both sides of the story before they make a decision prior to the zoning meeting on Wednesday, April 20th that will decide whether or not the two operations are built here or not.

A similar operation to those proposed here is owned by Lengacher near Owenton, Kentucky; with three barns holding 60,000 chickens. Lengacher and his wife run the operation by themselves, and he wants people to know that at the foundation of his operation; and at Egg Innovations in Warsaw, Indiana, is a family farming operation.

“I know where they’re coming from,” Lengacher said of those here who are opposing the planned operations. “They’re basing it on companies that do not hold to such a standard. That’s not saying they’re bad people, they’re just mis-informed. They probably do what I’d do. They hear something and they ‘Google’ it and try and see what they can find out about it; and I’m just trying to take the opportunity to give some of the facts.”

He bought the farm near Owenton in November of 2014; and both he and the realtor who sold him the farm believe that the value of the farm and the surrounding properties has not suffered since the egg operation began. An unsolicited call to Brantly Bush of Bush Realty confirmed that belief.

“No, I don’t see it,” Bush said. “Actually there have been several places, there’s been one farm that adjoined on the back end since you all purchased. There’s another one that’s sold since you purchased. There’s two houses about a half mile up the road, and they have sold since, and there’s a contract on something else, so I haven’t seen anything at all about it.”

Egg Innovations has operators in five states and 26 different counties, including Indiana – where many are located in the northern part of the state.

Lengacher said that the eggs produced are sold in retail operations, including but limited to: Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway, Costco.

But it all starts with the individual farmers.

“They’re all individual farmers,” Lengacher said. “John Brunnquell, the owner of Egg Innovations, will actually sign a contract with the farmer, a 12 year contract. They own the building, John owns the birds. Then they agree to properly take care of the birds under whatever John requires; and John, a lot of times, he has been dictated what to do by the USDA or one of the 14 different regulatory agencies in order for him to stay in compliance. That keeps his labels.”

The set up is similar to a dairy farm operation, with the exception that with the egg laying operation, Brunnquell owns the chickens; as opposed to the farmer owning his own dairy herd.

“John brings the chickens in at 15 to 16 weeks of age, and then somewhere between 80-90 weeks, they take them out. Most of them go right here in Kentucky to Purina dog food. Then new birds come in. They give you about a month to give the family a little bit of a break and everything, then you get new birds and you start over,” Lengacher said.

A typical day starts with the Lengachers getting up at about 5 a.m., when wife Mary taking care of all three barns on the farm, with each barn housing 20,000 chickens. First comes a walk through of each barn, where the Lengachers look to see if any of the chickens are not feeling well or if there are other issues. If any are found, they are isolated until they are feeling better.

“Then we make sure the feeders are all working and with the waterers, there are no leaks,” Lengacher said. “At that point we come and have breakfast, and then we go back and we pick up eggs, probably for about an hour and a half; and then clean everything; write our feed inventory down. Then in the afternoon, it’s another hour and a half. That’s a normal day.”

“She’s got it timed pretty good,” Jessie Stewart, Field Service Representative for Egg Innovations who oversees all Kentucky operations, said. “She’ll start in that barn about 7 a.m.; and then she’s done by 8:30 or 9 a.m. By the time she lets those birds out, she goes over there and opens the doors and packs eggs.”

Stewart said that Egg Innovation eggs go to over 550 grocers, and are certified by more than six certifiers.

The birds themselves are allowed outside beginning at 9 a.m., and Lengacher says that the windows are left uncovered so that the chickens can get natural sunlight.

“A lot of your factory farmers don’t do,” Lengacher said. “They’ll cover all the windows to drive maximum amount of production.”

Humane Farm Animal Care – HFAC – is the highest level of certification that a farm operation can get in terms of animal welfare. Lengacher says that one of the things that HFAC drives is to “let the chickens be chickens, and live as close to a normal life that you can possibly let them live.

“I enjoy it,” Lengacher said of how he raises chickens today. “The year I was born in 1964, my dad put up a 4,000 cage barn. That was 32×100 and we had 4,000 birds in there in cages. There were four birds living in a 12″x12″ cage, but that’s the way it was done.”

Lengacher says that he looks back at that operation now and knows that it was far from humane, and that memory helps drive his desire to create a much more humane environment for his current operation.

There are actually two different operations going on at the farm.

On one side of the property is certified pasture, which is a 52-acre tract that contains one barn. It was the first certified commercial pastured chicken egg operation in the country. The federal regulation for pastured chickens is 108 square feet per bird, not including structures like barn area or driveways.

That translates to about 52 acres for 20,000 pastured chickens, which is the proposed design here in Switzerland County.

On the other side is a double barn that houses free range chickens, which is a different classification, which allows 12 acres.

“With that said, we were able to put two of them end-to-end, each one of them has 12 acres attached to it,” Lengacher said. “But this is not what we’re promoting (in Switzerland County). I mean, it’s what we did at the time, not knowing for sure where we were going with it all.”

Lengacher said that Brunnquell believes that how the operations are structured is changing.

“John thinks that more and more people are going to go towards the animal welfare end of it,” Lengacher said. “They’re going to push towards having pastured….The USDA is changing their free range regulations to more square footage and the birds all have to go out; and as those times mature, with that barn (pointing to the pastured operation) we’re ahead of the game; where this here (pointing to the double barn that house free range chickens) we’re eventually going to be behind it.”

Lengacher’s role here in Switzerland County is as the Project Manager.

“My goal is to make sure that the barn gets built to Egg Innovations standards,” he said. “What we’re referring to is, we want to make sure that the manure that stays under the slats, is concealed so it doesn’t get out and into the waterways. We make sure that walls are a certain height around the barn, which the manure is extremely dry, powderish. I make sure that the egg rooms and the equipment being put in, I make sure things are put together properly. I make sure everything happens, number one, in a timely fashion.”

Lengacher says that he will also be charged with following up with the two operations here to make sure that they are staying in compliance with Egg Innovation standards.

The proposed farms here would be operated by Chris Beachy at the Truitt Road site and by Marlin Miller at the Goodner Road site.

“After that point, the farmer strictly works under contract with Egg Innovations,” Lengacher said. “They can sign anywhere from a six year to a 12 year. 12 years max.”

He said that if all parties are satisfied, the contract just rolls over when it ends.

Lengacher said that there are no other workers on his farm other than he and his wife; and that trucks come to take the eggs and bring feed approximately once a week, so there’s not an ongoing traffic issue with trucks. From here, all of the eggs go to Warsaw, Indiana, to Egg Innovations headquarters and processing plant.

Lengacher said that Egg Innovations is looking for local feed mills to participate in the feeding, and also look for local farmers who want to grow organic feed.

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So what does Louis Lengacher say to someone here in Switzerland County who may live near one of the proposed operations, or who may have doubts, questions, and fears about these operations coming here?

“Knowing Chris Beachy and Marlin Miller, they don’t want to move forward if it’s not acceptable,” Lengacher said. “Strictly because they have no desire to live in hostility. That’s not who we are. That’s why I said that it’s not about fighting, it’s about following the proper procedures and let everyone do their homework. Make sure that everybody is comfortable moving forward. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about me trying to get one over on you or I’m trying to get my way or bull my head through. That’s not what it is. I really think that Marlin and Chris Beachy feel that way, as well. In fact, they told me that.”

Lengacher said that both Switzerland County men asked him if he felt that it was even proper to move forward with the zoning request.

“It’s not our nature, it’s not who we are,” Lengacher said of the two men’s concerns. “It’s not what we stand for to try and force something through. I said we’re not forcing. At this point, there’s no forcing going on. I said that there is a proper procedure in place to do things like this, and you follow those proper procedures, and ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no’. I said I think – and I’m not saying this to put people down, because there is a fear there – they’re entitled to know what’s going on; so I think this is an opportunity to educate. We’re not the normal chicken industry. If we’d have a one year track record or even a two year track record, that would be one thing. We have a long track record. We want to be good neighbors.

“I think these neighbors need to have a good comfort level,” Lengacher continued about the Switzerland County projects. “If that means tabling it another 30 days and allowing everybody to do their homework? I don’t know. It’s not my place to say that.”