Here's the beef: Missouri cattle feedlot wants to grow; Powell Gardens fears the stink

If not for its location, the Valley Oaks Steak Co. might win wide support among Kansas City-area residents for providing what many of today's grocery shoppers say they crave: locally grown.

Farm to table.

But must Valley Oaks' expanding feedlot, slaughterhouse and retail meat market be three miles upwind of Powell Gardens?

Within weeks, thousands of cows could be coming to Lone Jack. They would be neighbors not only to the idyllic botanical attraction east on U.S. 50 highway but also to families in adjacent century farmsteads. And they'd be near new spreads of $400,000 homes, where the odor from Valley Oaks' existing operations, launched in 2016, already blows.

"You can call this factory state of the art. But the stink is still there," said Carolyn Wilkinson, a real estate agent who sold many of those homes.

The steak company has requested a Missouri Department of Natural Resources permit that would allow its feedlot to handle up to 6,999 head of cattle, potentially seven to 10 times the number there now.

RM feedlot me 052318 rs 006 (5)
The proposed expansion of Valley Oaks Steak Co., feedlot, slaughterhouse and retail store, located east of Kansas City along U.S. highway 50 in Johnson County, Mo., divided the Lone Jack community. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

And while that idea has many Lone Jack residents upset, it has out-of-town lovers of Powell Gardens — living 25, 50, 75 miles away — furious. After word raced in early February of Valley Oaks' desire to expand, almost 1,000 letter writers submitted their objections to the DNR, which continues to review the meat producer's request.

State regulators are expected to decide on the permit application in June.

For now, the nonprofit Powell Gardens is asking DNR representatives and Missouri legislators to tour its 970 acres of meadows, water plants, fountains, flower beds, harvest exhibits, manicured lawns and one gorgeous chapel. Just to see and appreciate. (No such summit has yet been scheduled.)

"Did they not understand? Did they not know we were here?" asked executive director Tabitha Schmidt last week.

RM feedlot me 052318 rs 006
Tabitha Schmidt, executive director of Powell Gardens, is worried about the impact of what could be the largest beef operation in Missouri. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

You won't see the expanded feedlot from any spot at Powell Gardens. You may not even smell it.

But Schmidt said friends of the gardens worry about the area's water quality, its serene ambience and the spread of insects and other pests that could damage delicate plant collections.

For its part, the family-run Valley Oaks Steak Co. insists it wants to be a good neighbor.

It aims to fatten and process regional cattle rather than having farmers transport steers to neighboring states. Regulators in those states welcome large feedlots known as CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — and are allowing them to multiply.

"We'd like to provide the highest quality meats to the Kansas City market," said operation manager Jake Huddleston.

He said that while Missouri is among the nation's leaders in producing calves, much of the fattening and processing happens elsewhere. From the Kansas City region, "they're all going to Kansas, Nebraska, or Iowa," and Missouri misses out on whatever economic benefit large cattle operations bring.

This cleaving issue, which has sprouted yard signs around Lone Jack urging "Say NO to Valley Oaks" and no to CAFOs, largely boils down to ideological stances:

Does a big feedlot have the right to descend on a community and alter its profile?

Or should this be about the ability for cattleman David Ward's family business to grow, to pump up the local economy, add 50 or 100 jobs, so long as state and federal codes are followed?

As for local codes? They don't really apply here.

That's because Valley Oaks' plant sits at the very western edge of rural Johnson County, Mo., which has no zoning rules for agricultural operations. And county voters in 2009 chose to keep it that way, expressing their distaste for government intrusion.

Lawyer and lobbyist Woody Cozad once represented a dairy CAFO that located in an isolated area of northeast Missouri. Now he is working for Powell Gardens to help block Valley Oaks' expansion.

"This is not an isolated area," Cozad said. "I was shocked to hear that a CAFO was being planned near thriving residential development and three miles from a major tourist attraction. And I'm still shocked."

'Dividing this little bitty town'

It's gotten ugly.

Shortly after Missouri's DNR mailed out those early February notices about the feedlot's request to expand, someone unknown fired shots around a Ward family farm, killing three cows. Powell Gardens, extending an olive branch, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the shooter's capture.

Then a county commissioner's car windshield got bashed in.

Animal rights advocates posted a billboard (since taken down) just outside the Valley Oaks plant with the message: "Meat stinks. Go vegan."

Taking a break from spraying his soybean field, lifelong Lone Jack resident David Barker, 58, said he supports Valley Oaks.

"They're going to need to buy a lot of local grain," he said. But Barker also understands why homeowners next to the property object.

"It's dividing this little bitty town and I don't like that at all," he said.

RM feedlot me 052318 rs 006 (6)
David Barker, a lifelong Lone Jack resident says he supports Valley Oaks. "They are going to need to buy a lot of local grain,'" he said. But Barker also understands why homeowners next to the property object. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Much of the division rests with the plant being new to Lone Jack, population about 1,200.

About two years ago, Grain Valley cattleman Ward began building this modern-day feedlot that puts all cattle under a roof, in open-air stalls. Currently, between 600 and 900 head are fed here.

The cattle's poop, projected by opponents to be 290 tons a day for 6,999 steers, would be blended with wood chips and stored in a warehouse to be processed into marketable fertilizer. Some of it would be bagged and sold; other manure would be worked into Valley Oaks' grounds to help nourish a cornfield.

While Valley Oaks' request to the state allows it to contain 6,999 head — CAFOs with 7,000 or more cows face stiffer environmental oversight — the company says its barns can currently hold only about 4,200.

And, according to Huddleston, the feedlot is adhering to procedures that are friendly to the environment, and to the animals, in ways that few CAFO feedlots practice. Valley Oaks employees stress that message to school groups who tour the plant on field trips.

Because the animals will be under a roof and contained within concrete barriers, "there will be zero runoff" of potentially unhealthy matter to nearby streams, said Mike Deering of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. "No way. Unless the cattle are standing on the roof."

But neighbors aren't buying it.

More than 800 homes stand within a three-mile radius of the plant. Many were bought or built by folks who saved up to retire to a peaceful place in the country. Their distress is evident by anti-CAFO yard signs.

Rachel Foley is a bankruptcy lawyer who lives with her mother in the fashionable Rock Lake Village subdivision just east of the feedlot. Among her concerns is that its expansion would create traffic hazards on U.S. 50, already a white-knuckled driving experience for anyone needing to make a left turn.

"It's going to be a constant stream of semi trucks," she said.

Foley and other opponents have marshaled a coalition swarming social media, rolling out studies about how the mere breathing in of manure odors can cause health problems in the elderly and asthma in children.

At an April public hearing in Warrensburg, Mo., that drew an over-capacity crowd to a community center, the feedlot's adjacent landowner and century farm resident Ryan Deich said unhealthy run-off could turn Lone Jack into the "toilet bowl of Missouri."

For reasons he couldn't explain, Deich said he noticed a drop-off in the population of whitetail deer since the feedlot opened.

"The deer just leave," Deich said at the hearing. "Whether it's due to bad water or the overwhelming stench, I don't know. But I do know they just leave."

Farm or factory?

In time, said century farm-owner Jack Wilkinson, people may just leave, too.

Driving a beat-up Ford-150 around sprouts of corn on property that borders the plant, Wilkinson (realtor Carolyn's husband) spoke of how he envisioned his grandchildren building homes there, continuing the family's seven-generation farm legacy.

RM feedlot me 052318 rs 006 (2)
Jack and Carolyn Wilkinson own a century farm adjacent to the Valley Oaks feedlot and slaughterhouse. If it expands, Jack Wilkinson worries that his grandchildren are not going to want to build on the property. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

His great grandparents lived there in a white house built about 1900. Still standing, it's not occupied.

Wilkinson pulled up to a gate that divides his land from the Valley Oaks site. A shift in wind currents blasted a recoiling odor. "My grandchildren are not going to want to build here," he said.

Lung cancer patient Daren Cashmark, 53, last year 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.

Diagnosed five years ago, the non-smoking Cashmark considers himself lucky to be alive. But he said his oncologist has advised that living next to a massive operation of contained cattle may not be the best for his lungs.

"We're not against the cattle. Here, they're all around," Cashmark said. "What we're against is the concentrated nature of it."

Warrensburg cattleman Kenny Smarr said Missouri needs the concentrated nature that Valley Oaks proposes.

"My biggest thing is that my calves are staying right here locally," said Smarr, who delivered 13 calves to Valley Oaks last week.

And that, he noted, is what the trend toward farm-to-market and farm-to-table is all about.

In 2014, then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was among backers of the Missouri Beef Initiative that brought together producers, scientists and lawmakers seeking to keep more of Missouri's cattle in-state.

But how should that goal be governed?

The county's health services administrator, Anthony Arton, told Warrensburg's Daily Star-Journal this past fall that unless area officials work together to set limits on large livestock operations, as other Missouri counties have, the region around Valley Oaks could become a "black hole."

"If we have two or three CAFO's ... nobody's going to want to build anywhere near there," Arton said.

But Deering of the cattlemen's association said a rejection of Valley Oaks' permit application would set a bad precedent for all family farm businesses.

"We'd be penalizing success," he said. "If we shut the door on this family, who's going to be next?"

Ward, the Valley Oaks patriarch, declined The Star's request for an interview. His critics contend he's more a developer of residential property and industry than a farmer.

"We are pro-farm," said Powell Gardens' Schmidt. "But this is not farming. This is a factory."