ROSE — There’s a good chance the chicken you bought at the grocery store or ordered in a restaurant grew up in a dimly lit poultry house like the ones on Ray Goertz’s 160-acre farm, where roughly 120,000 birds preen, peck and poop.
To America, it’s dinner. To Goertz and thousands of other farmers who have tied their fortunes to the success of the poultry industry, it’s a living. But that livelihood could be threatened by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s lawsuit accusing a dozen Arkansas processors of polluting the Illinois River watershed with bird waste. A federal trial is set for Sept. 21, and depending on the outcome, similar environmental lawsuits could be filed nationwide against the multibillion-dollar poultry industry. Goertz and his wife, Diana, have spent seven years raising birds in Rose, an eastern Oklahoma town. Ray Goertz, 55, grows chickens for Simmons Foods Inc., one of the companies accused in the lawsuit. It is not clear what effect the litigation will have on the processors’ operations, if any. But many farmers and residents in the dozens of small towns in Oklahoma dependant on the industry worry the companies could pull out of the state and threaten their way of life. "This place we have is part of Ray’s father’s 200 acres,” Diana Goertz said. "Losing this would be losing part of his heritage.” Handling chicken waste has long been part of doing business in this watershed. For decades, farmers took bird droppings, bedding and feathers from the houses and spread them on their land as an inexpensive fertilizer. The two states sanctioned this by issuing the farmers permits, and the industry said no individual companies or farms have been accused of violating environmental regulations.