Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Agribusiness vs. Rural Living & a River
A Chicken-Collision

Audio is available here: download one of all of the files.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last night in Columbia County, agribusiness collided head on with the rural residents of Fort White Florida and the protectors of the Santa Fe River and the Ichetucknee Springs water shed. Pilgrim's Pride, a U.S. company 75% owned by the Brazilian food giant JBS, has contracted with a Fort White farm to produce chickens, 250,000 of them every six weeks. The County says they have no control. The residents say their lives and property values are ruined. A manager from Pilgrim's Pride says the residents shouldn't worry. The FL Dept. of Agriculture says the company is using best practices and has the right to farm chickens. The Suwannee River Water Management District was nowhere to be seen.

The chicken collision was a last-minute addition to the County Commission (County 5 or The 5) agenda. County Manager Ben Scott asked the Chairman to add the chicken discussion to the agenda as the meeting got underway. The discussion clouded all other important business of The 5. The discussion went on for almost two hours, with Chairman Rusty DePratter giving anyone who wished to be heard, the opportunity.

The atmosphere was highly charged. The citizens came to be heard.

The atmosphere was highly charged. The residents, more than a hundred, came out at the last minute and were furious. Many felt double-crossed by the County 5 and thought they weren't doing their job to protect their constituents.

The 5, hobbled by decades of legendary good ole' boy cronyism and back room dealing may have gotten a partial bum rap on the chicken-collision, as this project appeared to be moving forward without their knowledge.

The County 5

District 3 Commissioner Bucky Nash said that he had only known about the Fort White chicken farm for two weeks and got a little hot under the collar when he was criticized by the speakers.

Long time County Commissioner Ronald Williams told the gathering that his family settled here in 1843; that he was sensitive to the needs of farmers and agriculture; that he was worried about the water; and had nothing good to say about the Suwannee River Water Management District. Commissioner Williams also took objection to the criticism.

Commissioner Scarlet Frisina said her family settled here in the 1820's; her family is farmers; she is surrounded by farmers; and she wants to protect our natural resources. Ms. Frisina said there are rights that farmers have and those rights are protected by the Florida Right to Farm Act and the chicken farmers are protected. She said she will work to protect the water, but the area is agricultural and the residents that live there chose to live there.

Commissioner Frisina said that if they put a chicken farm next to her she would have two choices: "live with it or move."

Commissioner DePratter said he grew up around a chicken farm and apologized if folks thought he wasn't taking the issue seriously. "I grew up around it, I'm used to it," he said.

Mr. DePratter said that in the future he wanted The 5 to be advised of these types of projects and reminded the public that agriculture in Columbia County is a billion dollar industry. He said he found out about the project in July.

The County Attorney: "this little law lesson"

County Attorney Foreman

Florida's only popularly elected County Attorney, Joel Foreman, weighed in and told the public, "Don't shoot the messenger as I give you this little law lesson."

Mr. Foreman said that the County 5, while possessing certain powers granted by the County Charter, are also bound by the Florida statutes. He said that as the County Manager pointed out, the Florida statutes specifically state that non-residential farm buildings on farms [the chicken-houses] are excluded from requiring a County-issued permit.

Mr. Foreman said the County Land Development Regulations (LDR's) may "touch this project." However, Mr. Foreman pointed out the Florida Right to Farm Act allows farmers to farm, generally without regulation from the County.

Mr. Foreman said there may be a permit requirement in the LDR's that "may apply."

The Department of Agriculture: "best practices"

         Hugh Thomas

Hugh Thomas of the Florida Dept. of Agriculture introduced himself. "I'm here tonight to speak about the best management practices that are being implemented on this farm," he said. Mr. Thomas said that the improvements made throughout all industries had extended to the poultry industry. Mr. Thomas said that all agencies of government have worked to improve best practices and "protect our resources." Mr. Thomas said the bird litter [sh_t] and the dead carcasses will be composted, contained, containerized, and the leachate, along with the compost and litter will be transported off-site.

Mr. Thomas said that the Suwannee River Water Management District had no concerns "with the way the operation was being administered."

Mr. Thomas' office is located in the Suwannee River Water Management's hdq. in Live Oak. He did not offer a reason why the Water Management District, the folks responsible for the water permit, weren't at the meeting.

   Jason Scarborough

The Representative of Pilgrim's Pride

Jason Scarborough, representative of Pilgrim's Pride said, "I know there are some concerns in the south end of the county. I just want to share what our intentions are." Mr. Scarborough explained the number of chicken houses being built and waste control.


The Residents

          John Jopling

Audio is of all the residents

Resident after resident came to the microphone. Not one was in favor of the chicken farm in Fort White, which is reported to be a mile from the downtown.

Residents were worried about their water quality; property values; the environment; issues with flies and horses; polluting of the Sante Fe River; polluting the Ichetucknee watershed; traffic; and the wear and tear on the roads.

John Jopling of the Ichetucknee Alliance was the first opposition speaker. "We don't want to be hysterical...we want to be fact-based...we want to know all the facts." He said, "If this county is willing to punt the obligation for deciding how to be good stewards of resources of this county to the FL Dept. of Environmental Protection and the Suwannee River Water Management District, then you haven't been paying attention."

   Merillee Malowitz-Jipson

Merillee Malowitz-Jipson of Our Sante Fe River, one of the lead environmentalists in the successful fight to save the Sante Fe River, has found herself and her organization in another fight to save the Santa Fe River. She has been at the Water Management District and talking with the Dept. of Agriculture.

Ms. Jipson explained that the Environmental Resource Permit had barely any information.

Shortly before publication she told the Observer, "I can't believe it. Here I am in the middle of another fight to save the river." Ms. Jipson's remarks begin at 6 minutes and 50 seconds into the audio.

Eugene Dugan

Eugene Dugan of Ft. White told The 5, "I don't have any scientific data like the people that came before me... If this goes through – this is huge – some million chickens – I'll remember it on election day."

Charles O'Donnell said, "This is a factory. This is not a farm."

Laverne Hodge said, "Anybody that thinks there is going to be no environmental impact... You need to say no."

Noreen Dismore told The 5, "I really wasn't going to speak..., but I feel I must." She spoke about the disappearance of the gopher turtles, "They definitely destroyed some... I've been watching em'. They just bulldozed everything."

Ms. Dismore spoke about the dead chickens and the roads.

Other than one disorderly individual who wouldn't sit down and demanded another turn at the microphone, the meeting was orderly and Chairman DePratter politely kept order.

You can hear all the speakers in their entirety on the audio.


Years ago during another project involving the Santa Fe River, a bottling plant and a pipeline, the County 5 got caught flatfooted. They said that wasn't going to happen again. It did. And that's about them not paying attention.

Faced with the chicken-collision, this time they may not be able to worm their way out.

They can protest all they want, but the Infamous 5 have been caught flatfooted again.

This is a difficult issue and Commissioner Nash and Commissioner Williams' protests about being criticized are wrong-headed and misplaced.

As Harry Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

The 5 would do well to also keep in mind President Truman's other famous saying, "The buck stops here."

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

Posted Oct. 19, 2015, bird lady wrote:

The commissioners are sworn to protect and look after the
 interests of the taxpayers, the people who elected them. If they,the
 commissioners, cannot act in the best interest of the people they
 serve, then they should resign .


Posted Oct. 19, 2015, a Fort White resident wrote:

The LDR states that any storage or sale of fertilizer requires a special exception. The 5 insist that manure and composted manure is not fertilizer, which I disagree with and apparently so does the state.


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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