Is the state of Missouri really going to let a factory farm move in next to Powell Gardens? We’re about to find out.

In 1898, the Wilkinson family settled on a farm just east of Lone Jack, Missouri. And there the family has stayed for the last 120 years. 

On a Tuesday afternoon in April, Jack and Carolyn Wilkinson — married 48 years — and their three children showed me around their original, certified-centennial homestead. Outside, cattle grazed quietly on pasture land. It’s a family-oriented community out here — the type of place where area residents chip in to help resurface the roads and gather every summer for the Hick City Ice Cream Social. Carolyn pointed toward the house to the east and noted that it’s inhabited by Wilkinson relatives, as is the one beyond that. That third house, too. 

Further in the distance, the metal roofs of silver barns rose above a ridge just south of their farmstead. We drove about 500 yards across the Wilkinsons’ pasture for a closer look at the barns, which sit on property owned by a man named David Ward. There are currently somewhere around 900 cows on Ward’s property awaiting the slaughterhouse (which is also located on his land). They’ll eventually be marketed as “locally grown beef with a one-of-a-kind flavor” and sold by Ward’s business, Valley Oaks Steak Company. 

Ward has bigger ambitions for his business, though. He intends to convert his property into a factory farm — what’s known as a confined animal feeding operation. CAFOs are unpleasant by nature and often controversial. Scientific studies show that wind can carry the stench from factory farm waste five to six miles. Other studies, one as recent as January, have found that nearby property values can plummet as much as 50 percent.

If Ward’s application with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is approved, the number of cows on his property could rise to 6,999 — and these cows won’t be gently grazing in a field. They’ll instead be mashed together inside six massive, open-air barns, producing 420,000 pounds of poop and urine each day as they are fattened to be killed. 

Ward’s plans have turned this quiet, just-outside-the-city community upside-down. Several neighborhoods surround his farm. An estimated 900 homes lie within a three-miles radius of Valley Oaks. Powell Gardens, one of the most beautiful and serene locations in the Kansas City area —it attracts over 100,000 tourists a year — lies about three miles east of Valley Oaks. Lone Jack is three miles west. Lee’s Summit and Lake Lotawana are 10-15 minutes away. 

The proposed Valley Oaks operation would be unique in that nowhere else in Missouri is there a factory farm that’s been plunked down in the middle of a fast-growing residential area — much less near an institution as renowned as Powell Gardens. 

“This is highly unusual to put this right in the middle of a growing area,” says Tabitha Schmidt, president and CEO of Powell Gardens. “You wouldn’t put this next to the Nelson [Atkins Museum of Art].”  

As adjacent landowners who will be among the most affected by Ward’s CAFO, the Wilkinsons have helped spearhead opposition to it. Planted in the front yards of hundreds of nearby homes are signs that shout NO TO VALLEY OAKS and NO CAFO. 

“We are pro-farming and pro-business,” Jack Wilkinson says. “But we also believe in good neighbor practices and being responsible landowners.” 

Chad Wilkinson, Jack’s son, says the predicament the Wilkinsons and other Lone Jack residents face regarding Valley Oaks could just be the beginning if the state allows it to proceed as planned. 

“I can tell you right now, they [CAFOs] are coming, they are going to go up like Walmarts, they are going to pop up everywhere,” he says. “Kansas City is going to wonder why, when a few of these factory farms drop into their neighborhoods.”

•     •     •

On April 3, the anger and frustration that has been simmering in and around Lone Jack over Valley Oaks came to a boil, when 600 people showed up in Warrensburg for a hearing convened by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. 

Few in attendance were happy about the prospect of welcoming a factory farm as their new neighbor. Many landowners in the area suspect Ward will only be in the business for the short term and plans to eventually sell to foreign investors in China or South America — a sequence of events that happens with increasing regularity in rural America.

Daryn Cashmark told the audience that he has stage IV lung cancer and moved to the country near Lone Jack a year ago to an acreage. He and his wife, Lana, had spent months searching for a dream home in the country where Cashmark would spend his last days. 

“We were ecstatic,” Cashmark said.

Ecstatic for a few months, at least. In February, a neighbor knocked on the couple’s door and told Lana a slaughter house and CAFO were being built just over a mile away.

“My heart just sank,” Lana Cashmark told me after the meeting.

Among those who spoke in opposition to the CAFO was a surprising figure: Woody Cozad.

A Kansas City lawyer and lobbyist, Cozad is the former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. He’s also a proponent of factory farms, and has represented CAFO companies in other parts of the state. He said he was shocked when he learned a CAFO was planned so close to Powell Gardens. He noted that, several years ago, one of his clients was a very large CAFO in northern Missouri and that you could fly over the area in a helicopter and not see any houses for miles.

“If you fly over Valley Oaks, you are going to see literally hundreds of homes…and businesses,” Cozad said. “Believe me, this [the Valley Oaks proposal] is unique. It is freakish that they are trying to put it where it is.”

Cozad said there are plenty of places in Missouri where farming populations have shrunk that would be perfect for such an operation — “and you are not going to destroy people’s homes and a tourist business with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year like Powell Gardens.” 

Ward, who did not respond to calls from The Pitch for this story, was not present at the hearing. But he did have defenders, the most prominent being members of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. Several speakers explained that CAFOs are the wave of the future and are necessary to feed the world. Other cattlemen said neighbors’ concerns of health, pollution, and property values were overblown. One farmer explained that manure odors are easy to deal with. 

“All you have to do is get in the shower and it washes off,” he said.

The man’s thinking seemed to mirror that of William Gabel, the presiding commissioner of the  Johnson County Commission. When I called Gabel, who was first elected to the office in 2010, he acknowledged that he had received 45 letters in opposition to the CAFO — the most he’s received in eight years as a commissioner. 

But he also said “there are a lot of people in favor of” the CAFO. Asked to name a single resident who supported the Valley Oaks expansion in Johnson or Jackson Counties, or more specifically, in Lone Jack or the neighborhoods surrounding the industrial farm, Gabel found himself at a loss. Finally, he said that the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association “strongly supports it.” 

Gabel, who lives in Warrensburg, then said that several farmers had “indicated that they would love to have the manure from the CAFO and couldn’t wait to [buy] it.”

When asked for the names of the farmers, Gabel said: “The farmer didn’t leave a name.”

He added: “I’d like to have some [manure] on my lawn.” 

He then told a story about when he was a boy and his father made him clean a barn with a manure spreader. “I thought my dad was being so mean to me,” Gabel said. “Within an hour I didn’t notice the smell. It wasn’t fun work, but I took pride in it. I got to where I appreciated what [my dad] did.”

•     •     •

Though the Wilkinsons, Powell Gardens (which recently hired Aimee Davenport, an experienced environmental attorney, as its legal representation), and hundreds of other neighboring landowners are clearly in the majority in asking that the Valley Oaks permit application be denied, the odds are stacked high against them. 

State laws make it extremely difficult to fight a CAFO. Laws governing CAFOs favor new businesses, and MDNR officials have never turned down a so-called factory farm permit due to complaints of neighbors.

“DNR says if [the industrial farm owners] fill out the paperwork, [the company is] good to go,” says Karen Lux, one of the lead organizers of Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Farming and a Wilkinson descendent. “Honestly, that is the truth. There is nothing [MDNR] can do.”

Because the Valley Oaks herd will be allowed to have one cow less than 7,000, the CAFO falls into what is called Class 1B, as opposed to Class 1A. That means MDNR can oversee and inspect the facility for violations of the Clean Water Act. But that’s it. 

Clean air pollution laws that govern particulates, bio-aerosols and dust, and public nuisance regulations regarding odors and insects (such as hordes of flies) won’t apply to Valley Oaks. One cow more and those regulations would apply.

“We do recognize that odor and flies are a concern for these facilities, but they fall outside of the clean water laws,” says Jake Faulkner, chief of MDNR’s industrial permits.

Because of staffing levels, inspectors will only visit the Valley Oaks facility once every five years. 

Faulkner notes that his agency will also respond to complaints about possible water pollution. But even if wrongdoing is found, bad actors now face little in the way of repercussions.

Several years ago, neighbors of CAFOs, particularly in northern Missouri, were successfully suing owners of big industrial farms for being public nuisances, including one that resulted in an $11 million jury award in 2010.

In response to heavy lobbying by such organizations as the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, the state legislature — made up of a majority of Republicans — passed a law severely curtailing the amount of damages a jury can award in these types of cases. 

•     •     •

It is possible that, should its permit be awarded, Valley Oaks will prove itself an engaged, responsible neighbor in Lone Jack. Documents obtained by The Pitch, though, show that Ward’s reputation regarding environmental laws and animal treatment is far from sterling.

For one, Valley Oaks’ current permit application has received extensions because of a number of deficiencies including failure to submit engineering reports and water monitoring reports.

In addition, the company was supposed to notify at least 22 residents about the CAFO last August, but those notices were not mailed until Feb. 1, by which time Valley Oaks was already building its barns. 

And last year, on Feb. 22, the United States Department of Agriculture suspended the inspection personnel at Valley Oaks for one day because of a violation of the Humane Slaughter Act. 

The reason? A USDA inspector discovered a Valley Oaks employee shooting a cow with a revolver. 

For humane reasons, cows during the slaughtering process are supposed to be stunned using a captive bolt gun. Then, once they are unconscious, their necks are slit and bled out. On this February day, a USDA inspector heard two gunshots ring out and subsequently found a wounded steer wandering around still “ambulatory and alert.” An employee had shot the cow with a .22 mag revolver instead of using the captive bolt gun. 

Autumn Canaday, spokeswoman for USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, says the company was issued a correction action and suspension “due to the mis-stunning of livestock.” 

Valley Oaks had to provide the government with a corrective plan to inspectors. Canaday says inspectors are continuing to closely monitor “the establishment to ensure that its processes are in compliance with humane handling regulations.”

Since 1986, Ward has been buying property to develop subdivisions and selling land to builders. Here, too, he has run afoul of regulators. 

In 2004, a $13,500 civil judgment in Jackson County Circuit Court was assessed against David L. Ward, Randall W. Salle, and Wallee/Ward Investments Inc. for past violations of the Missouri Clean Water Law and Regulations at a construction site. 

And in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Ward’s company, Ward Development and Investment, $95,000 because of “an illegal discharge of pollutants associated with an industrial activity into waters of the United States” at its Woodbury Homes of Grain Valley site.

The EPA said the $95,000 civil penalty was for five violations of the Clean Water Act: failure to conduct site inspections, failure to maintain pollution control measures, failure to obtain a permit, failure to implement an adequate stormwater solution prevention plan, and failure to implement appropriate best practices management. 

A year later, Ward’s Woodbury Homes of Grain Valley, pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of providing a false document to the EPA, according to EPA records and news stories.

The document falsely stated that “Woodbury” had applied for a stormwater permit to develop a subdivision. Ward, the principal owner of Woodbury Homes, paid a $15,000 fine.

None of this has stood in the way of Ward moving forward on his Valley Oaks plan, of course. County records indicate he has taken out $35 million in loans for the project. And even though the permit hasn’t yet been approved, he’s already building those silver barns. 

•     •     •

The conflict over Valley Oaks has, so far, resulted in two renowned local chefs abandoning the company’s meats. 

Chef Jonathan Justus, owner of Justus Drugstore in Smithville and the recently opened Black Dirt restaurant on the South Plaza, says he dropped Valley Oaks meats like a “hot potato” because of the bad publicity surrounding the factory farm. And Alex Pope, owner of The Local Pig, issued a statement:

“We began purchasing a small amount of steaks [from Valley Oaks] about eight months ago as a supplement to our whole animal beef program. Their size when we first started working with them seemed reasonable, however we share the neighbors’ concerns with the impact of their expansion.”

It’s a start. In the meantime, the members of the Lone Jack community who would rather not suffer the potential odors, pollution, and decreased property values likely to be caused by Valley Oaks may have one last chance to fight the CAFO off. 

Valley Oaks is believed to be supplying water to its current cows by using a residential water hookup that draws from a nearby water tower. In other words, it’s using the same water supply as an ordinary household. 

In January, Valley Oaks used 188,000 gallons of water. In comparison, an average household uses 8,000 to 10,000 gallons monthly.

This arrangement is not feasible if Valley Oaks adds another 6,000 cows. Ron Brockhaus, general manager of Public Water Supply District No. 2., says he told Valley Oaks in March that it couldn’t use more water from the tower. He says several people have complained about possible water pressure problems.

“They can’t add more cattle” until they resolve the water issue, Brockhaus says. “They have been told they can’t have more volume off that tower due to the supply and demand [by the other residents].”

The company is discussing whether to dam a creek on its property and create a lake, or dig a new waterline from the direction of U.S. Route 50, pulling water from a different water tower, Brockhaus says. It’s unclear how long that might take. It’s also possible that Powell Gardens has enough sway with state officials to slow this thing down. To do so, they’ll have to go through the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. And they’re not a friendly bunch. 

In mid-April, I asked Mike Deering, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, why he felt it appropriate to support a CAFO located in an area next to 900 homes.

Deering did not answer the question. In a statement, he said, “It is important that consumers have access to safe, affordable and nutritious food. The ‘experts’ say we will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than in the previous 10,000 years combined.” He said the Ward family is on a quest to meet these growing demands. If this challenge isn’t met, Deering wrote, “I cannot even begin to describe the disaster that will be upon all of us.”

In a subsequent phone call, I again asked Deering about the location of the CAFO. Why so close to Powell Gardens and all these homes? Was that necessary? 

“I’m on vacation, and I’m not going to talk to you now,” Deering said. “I haven’t had a vacation in five years.”

Greg Buckman, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association board president, also didn’t like the question about the placement of the CAFO. Buckman said he had visited the farm. 

“I saw no problems with it,” he said. “It’s the most environmentally friendly farm I’ve ever seen.”

I pointed out that he had visited the farm while it has only about 600 cows, and the Valley Oaks plan, should it receive its permit, is to house nearly 7,000 cows on the property. 

“They way they control it, it doesn’t matter if there are 900 cows or 3,900 cows,” Buckman said.

He then said it wasn’t up to the association to determine where the CAFO should be located. 

“We support property rights,” Buckman said, “and if you want to do something legal in the state of Missouri, you should be able to do that.”  

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