The state Department of Agriculture is preparing to conduct soil tests at 15 Oklahoma farms in the Illinois River watershed to determine the effects of poultry litter, according to a recent Associated Press report.
The agreement for testing was made between Agriculture Secretary Terry Peach and Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, and has area poultry growers concerned about individual property rights.
"The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture is maintaining they have the right to come on our land and test for anything they want at any time," said Bev Saunders.
Saunders and her husband, Al, are Delaware County poultry growers for Peterson Farms. Their broiler ranch is near Colcord.
"Please understand, we do not have a problem with them testing for what Senate Bill 1170 was written for - nutrients," said Saunders. "We have openly expressed and even invited them to do that."
SB 1170 allows Department of Agriculture inspectors to test for potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen.
Farmers and their representatives say the new tests - conducted for arsenic, copper, zinc, several different bacteria as well as estrogen-related hormones - are meant to provide ammunition for a lawsuit against the poultry companies.
Marla Peek, director of regulatory affairs with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, told AP there is every indication these farms have followed the act and are in compliance with state law.
"It's way above and beyond what state law requires," said Peek. "I don't know if this is legal, but I can tell you it smacks of abuse of power."
Saunders tends to agree.
"This is a witch hunt," said Saunders. "The funny part of this story [is] - the very week after this situation began in April, my husband sent soil samples to OSU to be analyzed. If we had anything to hide, would we have sent the soil tests to the state testing lab? Of course not."
By law, Oklahoma poultry producers send samples to the Oklahoma State University for testing. The lab at OSU tests the soil for potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen, and sends the results back to the farmers.
"[The results] tell us the safe application rate of fertilizer we can use without causing environmental problems," said Saunders. "And that's what we do, according to the law. And that is what the law was intended to do - to control the application of poultry litter in Oklahoma, mainly because of the phosphorus issue."
Ed Fite, administrator for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, believes full disclosure is best.
"I know Bev Saunders, and I look to her to provide the best example of 'Mom and Pop' poultry production," said Fite. "I hope cooler heads prevail in the coming months. What people need to understand is, in this day and time, environmental issues are becoming a large part of property sales. More and more, people are going to be held responsible for those issues when selling their property."
After being contacted by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture in an effort to explain the additional testing, a few of the farmers got together, along with a newly organized group, Poultry Partners, to discuss the matter.
"It was clear the farmers selected for testing are in the Illinois River watershed," said Saunders. "We began to wonder what they were looking for and why."
Saunders said it was then revealed to the group that the Department of Agriculture was asked to conduct the testing at the request of the Oklahoma Attorney General's office.
"The representatives said 300-plus samples would be taken in each of three different 10-acre fields from each farm," said Saunders. "Now, if this testing was being done in residential home areas or even on business or government lawns, how many people would alow a government agency to come in and probe that many holes, up to 6 inches deep, in their yards just because the government agency was on an exploration?"
After a number of farmers protested the testing, officials from the Department of Agriculture called a meeting with the selected farmers at the ICTC Vo-Tech in Kansas, May 3, to persuade farmers to allow the testing.
Saunders said that while several areas of concern were voiced, one major item was the question of allowing the farmers to get split soil samples for their own testing.
Dan Parrish of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, via a letter written May 18, stated a representative of Poultry Partners would be allowed to go to Colorado to observe lab testing for 34 parameters.
"Now how many poultry farmers, who have a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job just raising the birds, would take off and go to Colorado to watch a lab test?" asked Saunders. "Especially in the summertime, when heat is such an issue and other farm activities, such as baling hay, is a priority. Why couldn't the samples be split in the fields and the farmers take one and the Department of Ag take one?"
Saunders said the farmers "have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide."
The Poultry Partners received a letter May 27 from Secretary Peach, stating: "The Department is confident in its authority to conduct the sampling events" and "In the event access is not granted, alternative methods for entrance and sampling will be sought."
Ed Brocksmith, administrator for Save the Illinois River (STIR) and longtime advocate for clean water, made the following comment on the organization's Web site regarding additional testing: "STIR is encouraged by the Attorney General's attention to other contaminants of concern besides phosphorus. The lawsuit also requires an examination of poultry pollution from arsenic, growth hormones, and bacterial pathogens such as e coli. While the problem associated with excess phosphorus is well-known, the concerns regarding these other pollutants must be investigated and addressed if we are to protect the citizens safety and heritage of Scenic Rivers."
A recent AP report showed most Oklahomans support Attorney General Drew Edmondson's lawsuit against the poultry industry over water quality issues, according to the findings of a statewide poll.
The Oklahoma Poll, conducted June 23-27, found that 58.3 percent of those questioned support the filing of the lawsuit, while 22.3 percent are opposed. The remaining 19.4 percent were undecided.
The poll also found that 58.6 percent of those polled said they were concerned about Oklahoma's water quality. Another 36.6 percent said they were not concerned, and 4.8 percent said the had no opinion.