ROY MAYNARD, firstname.lastname@example.org
The first question everyone has, acknowledges Bob “Pic” Billingsley, is about the smell - will the new Sanderson Farms chicken processing plant, slated to be built in the Winona area, stink?
“That’s a very good question,” said Billingsley, as he led a group from Tyler around the grounds of Sanderson Farms’ plant in Palestine. “But you tell me.”
Just feet away from the facility’s wastewater collection pond, there’s no smell at all, aside from the wind in the pines and the freshly mown grass.
That’s because the wastewater collection pond is covered - entirely enclosed. And the methane - that’s the stinky part of any biodegradation process - is captured, then refined into natural gas and used in the plant itself.
“I understand that people worry,” said Billingsley, Sanderson Farms’ director of development and engineering. “And I would, too, if all I knew about was the old technology, the old way of doing things. But that’s not what we’re doing here in Palestine, and it’s not what we’re going to do in Smith County.”
In March, Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms announced it was looking at three sites in and around Smith County for a $200 million investment. The sites would include a processing plant, a feed mill and a hatchery, with a combined total of 1,700 permanent jobs. The company also would need as many as 80 independent chicken growers in the area, who would contract with the company to provide offsite growing services.
In recent months, the company has worked to acquire those sites and will soon be ready to begin construction.
The feed mill will be in Mineola, where there’s easy access to railroad facilities, which will bring in the grain to make 8,200 tons of feed per week.
The hatchery will be located in the Lindale Business Park.
And the processing plant will be located in Winona, where it will process as many as 250,000 chickens per day.
How can something that massive not smell? Billingsley points to the technology, which Sanderson Farms helped develop.
“What we’re doing here is capturing that methane and refining it on the spot,” he said. “We turn it into pipeline-quality natural gas, which in turn decreases what we need to buy to run our plant. On the average day, we can meet about half our natural gas needs with what we produce here.”
The Palestine plant will be the model for what will soon be built in Winona.
“And since opening up the Palestine plant in 2015, we have had zero environmental violations,” Billingsley said. “Our goal is never just to meet the permitting requirements. Our goal is always to exceed them.”
In 2016, more than 9,000 wastewater samples were collected, according to a company report on environmental impact. And the company received no civil or administrative penalties.
The jobs Sanderson Farms will bring to the region aren’t minimum wage jobs. The company’s starting salary is $11.85, with second shift (evenings) starting at $12.35. And the sanitation shift jobs start even higher, at $14.30.
The jobs in Palestine attract about 180 Smith County residents. They either make the drive themselves each day, or they board a bus that Sanderson Farms sends to the Salvation Army parking lot.
There are slightly more male workers than female workers, Billingsley said, “but every job in this processing plant can be done by either a male or a female.”
About 55 percent of the workers are African-American, 29 percent are white and about 15 percent are Hispanic. The company uses E-Verify to ensure that its employees have the right to work in the United States, and its own proprietary verification system.
The myth, Billingsley acknowledges, is that chicken processors rely upon low paid, undocumented immigrants.
“But that’s not the reality,” he said. “These are good jobs with good benefits - we even pay 75 percent of the employee’s insurance.”
Sanderson Farms is the nation’s third-largest poultry producer. It’s fully self-insured, and operates several employee wellness programs.
WHY SMITH COUNTY?
“The biggest reason we chose these locations is the quality of the workforce,” said Billingsley. “But we also think about the quality of life for our workforce – the biggest question I ask when I’m choosing a site is whether I would move my wife Nancy there.”
The company needed proximity to the interstate system, as well as clean, dependable water (the processing plant uses 1,100 to 1,200 gallons per minute).
And Smith County fit the bill.
“We were looking for an area with some diversity, with both agricultural land and city amenities, and here, it’s all good,” he said. “And overall, our experience has been that Texas is a great place to do business.”
One of the company’s biggest needs right now is lining up the 80 or so contract growers who will help supply the plant. The company will need broiler farms, pullet farms and laying farms, Billingsley explained. Each of those farms will play a different role in the process. But they’re all necessary.
And Sanderson Farms is ready to help area landowners who think they might like to become growers. The company will send out engineers and environmental experts to evaluate sites. If they determine a plot of land will work, they’ll help the landowner draw up a business plan. The company has a preferred design for its chicken houses; each chicken house costs about $250,000, and the average grower has eight.
The company will also help potential growers apply for financing.
“We offer a 15-year contract with the growers, and that’s why the banks love to say yes,” said Billingsley.
Environmental regulations, animal welfare rules and other state and federal standards are already built into the contract between the grower and Sanderson Farms. The company has a vested interest in making sure its contractors are obeying the law.
“And I can say we haven’t had any major problems,” he said.
ON THE PLATE
The Palestine processing facility packages chicken for the casual dining market – it’s the chicken that consumers get in restaurants and cafeterias. The biggest customer for the Palestine plant is Sysco.
But the Winona processing plant will focus on the “tray market” - the chicken that customers see in the Styrofoam trays at their local supermarkets.
“So you’ll be able to buy it at your local Brookshire’s,” Billingsley said.
The next step, officials say, is negotiating some tax abatement agreements with local taxing entities. Those discussions are happening now. When the details are worked out, public hearings and public meetings will be held.
Company officials will be on hand to answer questions at those meetings, Billingsley said.
“We’ll be asked about the smell,” he said. “I wish we could just bring them out here.”