Never enough: Valley Oaks closes doors after harrassment, lawsuits abound
Valley Oaks Steak Company had barely gotten the light switches figured out on their state-of-the-art meat processing facility when they succumbed to anti-ag activists last month. Following a year of harassment, threats and lawsuits they announced Aug. 19 they were ceasing business.
Ironically, the family-owned feedlot and meat processing plant, located 30 miles east of Kansas City, was designed as a sustainability, environmentally-conscious, socially-aware, locally-grown foodie’s dream. “We did everything ‘they’ wanted,” says manager Jake Huddleston, even installing an observation deck over the kill floor. The cutting-edge processing plant is owned by the Ward family, noted Angus cattle breeders and area real estate developers. It was built in 2016 alongside the largest covered feedlot in Missouri that has a capacity of 900 head. Cattle were fed, finished and then walked to harvest in a one-site, low-stress environment. The meat was sold off the farm.
It was as close as a family, a farm and a fork have ever been.
“We checked off all the boxes – we did the research and found out what people want,” says Huddleston. “We identified sustainability standards, we were vertically integrated, we addressed where all our inputs came from, how much fuel we were keeping off the road and what our carbon footprint was. We checked off every environmental impact. And it still wasn’t enough.”
As Valley Oaks ramped up production from a “proof of concept” 12 head a day to a goal of 100 head per day, they grew to 100 employees and then sought to expand cattle operations. In February 2018 they requested permitting for an expansion from 900 head of cattle to 6,999 and sent out what Huddleston called a “neighbor letter” outlining their plans.
That’s when the imagined stink began.
“What followed was a barrage of false accusations that got legs and traveled quickly until they were quickly accepted as factual,” says Huddleston. “It became ludicrous.” Letters of condemnation totaled over 1,000 and explosive town meetings took place. “I was at one meeting where the opposition had to hold one guy back or he would have physically attacked me,” Huddleston says. Activists, neighbors and opponents of ag cited poor air quality, odor, water contamination, spread of disease, insects and negative quality of life among their fears.
As the public whipped themselves into a frenzy, four head of Valley Oaks cattle were shot during the night at point blank range. The Ward family had a house door smashed in, photos were taken of their children playing in their yard, and company supporters received phone calls that they would be “slaughtered.”
In June 2018 the Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued Valley Oaks their requested no-discharge permit which allowed the expansion. Opposing comments and lawsuits were filed, and in October 2018 the Missouri Clean Water Commission responded to an appeal of the decision and halted the expansion.
Leading the lawsuit was the 1,000-acre Powell Gardens, a botanical garden community four miles from Valley Oaks, in partnership with a variety of anti-agricultural groups and a deep arsenal of misinformation. Statements from opposition claimed they were certainly pro-farming, just “not here.” Signs posted read “No to Valley Oaks – Farms not Factories.”
After over $1 million in legal fees in one year the burden was too much. “It’s crippling,” says Huddleston. “How do you work that into your P&L?
“It was taxing, not just from a financial standpoint, but we feel like we’re shouldering the entire burden for the whole state of Missouri and beyond.”
While some Missouri ag advocacy groups are speaking out on behalf of the folded company, it’s “too little, too late,” Huddleston says. Even the recently passed Senate bill 391, nicknamed “the Valley Oaks bill” and written with the intent to bolster ag operations, is too watered down to have any effect he says. “Our governor of Missouri is a cattle producer himself, and we’re not even seeing any action or recourse from him.”
Beyond a one-business closure, Craig Curry of Protect the Harvest feels there is something deeper – and darker – going on.
Protect the Harvest is an Indiana-based think tank with the mission of uniting animal producers and exposing the untruths behind activists. He says the weight of the doors closing at Valley Oaks is heavy. “They spent the money to do what everybody says they want for animal welfare – and it still wasn’t enough?” questions Curry. “This is dirty, I’m telling you, it’s dirty.”
Curry is studying what he calls forensic data about the situation, seeking answers. Who are the donors to Powell Gardens? What non-profit groups are at the table? Who is writing and enforcing the regulations? Why are some groups sitting silent?
“The fastest growing law in the country is animal law, and it is not on the producers’ side,” says Curry. “Critical thinking is gone, people do not understand reality anymore. We are easy targets.”
He says the paradox is alarming. “Over-regulations are pushing the little guy out of business, and the only ones who can afford to stay in business are the big corporations, which is what everyone who is pushing the little guy out says they are against. There is no rationale left.”
Huddleston says it’s unfortunate what happened to his company, but the bigger concern is the precedent that has been set. “Their ‘win’ is going to give these organizations more fuel and fire. It’s just going to keep getting worse.”
While the stainless steel sits spotless at Valley Oaks, the activists scream “not in my backyard” and ag producers think, “I’m sure glad it wasn’t me,” the question looms, whose door will they be knocking at next?
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News