After neighbors sued, Missouri cattle feedlot near Powell Gardens says it is closing

Drone video: Missouri cattle feedlot’s plan to expand divides neighbors

Valley Oaks Steak's feedlot and slaughterhouse, located near dozens of houses and three miles from Powell Gardens, wants to expand its operation along U.S. highway 50. The plan has caused quite a stink with many nearby residents.
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Valley Oaks Steak's feedlot and slaughterhouse, located near dozens of houses and three miles from Powell Gardens, wants to expand its operation along U.S. highway 50. The plan has caused quite a stink with many nearby residents.

Citing economic strains, a steak company that had been trying to add thousands of cattle to its feedlot near Powell Gardens, igniting a legal battle with residents, on Monday said it was closing.

In a statement, Valley Oaks Steak Company said it would shut down immediately. The company, which launched in 2016, said it had become a “lightning rod for individuals and organizations opposed to animal agriculture operations.”

“For the future of all Missourians, urban and rural, we hope that people will rely on the science of modern agricultural techniques and methods, and not be swayed by persons and organizations who sow seeds of fear and distrust for their own personal gain and profit,” the company said in the statement.

Valley Oaks planned to become a local “hoof-to-table” supplier. But the company faced neighbor opposition when it applied for a permit to allow its feedlot to expand from 999 cattle to 6,999.

Dozens of Jackson County property owners filed a lawsuit last month that contended they could not escape the odor emanated by the company’s operations. They said they were fed up with the insects, increased traffic and other quality of life issues.

Kenneth McClain, an attorney for the 141 property owners, said his clients were pleased with Valley Oaks’ decision and described the company as having done the right thing. He said his clients will “no longer feel like prisoners in their own homes.”

“This was the ultimate goal,” McClain said. “To cease the activity.”

McClain said his firm was assessing the pending lawsuit, saying the company’s decision to close stopped future nuisances to nearby residents but did not resolve previous damages. And, he said, it does not prevent another company from opening there.

The proposed expansion divided Lone Jack, a city of about 1,000 residents about 40 miles southeast of downtown Kansas City.

Hundreds of letters were sent to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in opposition of the proposal. Shortly after the DNR mailed out notices about the request to expand, someone fired gunshots around a family farm of the owner, killing three cows.

In its statement, Valley Oaks said it had looked forward to having its day in court. But it cited the cost of paying for a “constant barrage of legal battles and extensive marketing efforts needed to counter misinformation.”

Their owners’ families were also the subject of relentless personal attacks, according to the company. The statement added: “Our children have been targeted, bullied and threatened.”

Valley Oaks executives and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association have said the expansion would have added dozens of jobs to the area and benefited nearby producers of livestock and grain. Valley Oaks had already employed about 80 people.

On Monday, the cattleman’s association said the closing was a huge loss to every farm and ranch family in Missouri.

“It’s a shame when a family business is bullied out of business based on scientifically unfounded, activist driven fear mongering and lawsuits,” the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association said.

The non-profit Powell Gardens, a nearby 970-acre botanical garden in Johnson County, Missouri, had expressed concern that the company’s operation, with its smell and waste runoff, would be a “potential threat to the beauty and peace” of the attraction.

Tabitha Schmidt, CEO and president of Powell Gardens, said her staff was shocked by the news. Schmidt said she was sad to see people lose their jobs, but noted that Powell Gardens’ issues were with the feedlot’s location, size and scope.

Powell Gardens does not generally have problems with concentrated animal feeding operations, Schmidt said. But this was one built near hundreds of residential homes and three miles from the city’s botanical gardens, she said.

“No CAFO does that,” Schmidt said, using the term for concentrated animal feeding operations. “They’re usually put in these very isolated areas where no one lives or if someone does, they don’t mind it.”

Schmidt said Valley Oaks has tried to paint Powell Gardens as being against farmers and agriculture. Nothing could be further from the truth, she said.

“We know farmers are stewards of the land,” Schmidt said. “What gets missed in this conversation is that Valley Oaks was not a farm. It really was a factory.”

In its statement, Valley Oaks said Powell Gardens organized a “fear-mongering campaign” against its operation. Schmidt said Powell Gardens was careful to not do that, saying they “fought the opposition from a scientific point of view with scientific experts.”

Among its concerns, Powell Gardens worried odor would reach the gardens and affect weddings and other events. Valley Oaks said it had taken measures to ensure its operation would not attract flies or produce “overwhelming smells.”

More than 800 homes stand within a three-mile radius of the plant, which counted 2,335 people in the 2010 U.S. Census, according to the property owners’ lawsuit. And more than 6,400 people live within five miles, they said.

The cattle’s waste under the proposed plan was projected by the plaintiffs’ attorneys to reach about 300 tons a day from nearly 7,000 steers.

Citing a 2010 National Association of Local Boards of Health study, the lawsuit stated that major odor from cattle-feeding operations could travel five to six miles. Many of the plaintiffs can’t avoid the stench from Valley Oaks’ operation even when they are inside with their doors and windows closed, according to the lawsuit.

Homeowners’ distress within the last year was evident by yard signs that sprouted around Lone Jack urging “Say NO to Valley Oaks” and no to concentrated animal feeding operations.

Among the plaintiffs suing is lung cancer patient Daryn Cashmark, who in 2017 paid $300,000 for a house a mile from the plant. Unaware of Valley Oaks’ expansion plans, he arrived from Independence to benefit from Lone Jack’s fresh air and to provide a permanent place for his wife, Lana, after his death, he previously told The Star.

“We’re happy by the news, we’re encouraged by it,” Cashmark said Monday. “We’re just hoping it’s true and it sticks and everything is going to hopefully, maybe, be done finally. Get back to normal life out here.”

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.