Erik Soll is ready to prove himself.
The Arlington farmer, who is among those building barns to raise chickens for Costco's $400 million processing plant in Fremont, has faced push back from neighbors and opponents of the project since the very beginning.
“It's exciting to me to be able to prove them wrong and show them I can manage this and it's not going to affect anything,” Soll said.
Now, more than a year after he and three other Washington County farming families received their conditional use permits (CUP), the barns are going up at two locations, one farm is operational, while a fourth decided not to move forward.
Adam Wrich, who was to build barns near County Road 14 and U.S. Highway 75 north of Blair, decided not to move forward at this time, said Jessica Kolterman, external affairs for Lincoln Premium Poultry.
The processing plant, operated by Lincoln Premium Poultry, is to commence its food processing operations in September, shortly after Labor Day.
'It's very exciting'
Soll looked at the four broiler barns under construction on his property along County Road 28 north of Arlington and smiled.
In just a few short months, these barns will be filled with chickens.
“It's definitely a relief,” said Soll, who grew up in Arlington. “It's very exciting because I know I'm going to be really good at this. I know I'm going to manage it really well.”
Soll and his wife, Calli, will operate the barns while living in a house they purchased just across the road.
“Our property line for our house, our acreage, is 200 feet from our property line for this field,” he said.
The couple had initially planned to build a house — and may still do so at some point — but when a house came up for sale, they jumped at the chance to buy it.
“It was a great opportunity and we love it,” Soll said. “It's a beautiful home.”
The Solls are not alone in the operation. Calli's brother, Case Camenzind and his wife, Joscelyn, will operate barns in Dodge County, just north of Fremont and west of Nickerson.
The Camenzinds initially tried to build in Washington County, but pulled their CUP request prior to the April 24, 2018, Board of Supervisors meeting.
“It was a way to diversify our operation,” Soll said.
Soll also knows many of those in the network of farmers raising chickens for the Costco plant.
“It's just a big family and we're all working together even though it's our own individual farms,” he said.
While he has his supporters, Soll has also faced the opposition, including his neighbors, who as a Nebraska Limited Cooperative Association referred to as Rural Arlington Citizens, filed a lawsuit against the Washington County Board of Supervisors over Soll's operation.
Soll said he has also received letters threatening a lawsuit if he continues with construction of the barns, which are expected to be completed this fall.
The current lawsuit, which was filed a month after the April 24 county board meeting, is seeking to have Soll's CUP revoked.
But Soll is undeterred. He believes once the barns are operational, he will show his neighbors that chicken farms and residential properties can live side by side
“I hope someday everybody can calm down and know that I did everything I could to make sure that this isn't going to hurt kids or property values or stink,” he said. “I know someday that I'm going to be on top of it.”
In the meantime, Soll is preparing to deliver the first load of grain to the feed mill on June 25 in Fremont.
Kolterman said the mill will begin running test batches in late June and early July. It will start full operations once testing is complete.
Returning to the family farm
A few miles up the road, Andrew Ruwe's four breeder barns along County Road 7 just north of Telbasta are nearing completion.
Construction began in the spring. Ruwe is expected to have his first delivery of birds around Sept. 7.
“It's pretty exciting to see it all come together and see the barns put up,” Ruwe said. “The first time you step in the barns, it's unreal how big they are, but it's also encouraging to see the quality they're putting behind these barns, too.”
While many farmers are using the opportunity from Costco and Lincoln Premium Poultry to diversify their operations, Ruwe, an electrician by trade, is using it as an opportunity to return to the family farm. His father, Chris, has a crop rotation operation. The barns are located about 1 1/2 miles from his farm.
“It's exciting to be able to be back on the farm and I'll be able to work,” he said.
Ruwe said it's likely he would have eventually returned to the farm at some point, but he would had to keep a second full-time job just as his father did.
Ruwe said his father, wife, Laura, and their two sons will also help out with the chicken operation.
Four barns operational
Morgan Shaner, the youngest son of Jeff and Kelli Shaner of Fort Calhoun, smiled and posed for a photo with the first egg found in the Shaners' four breeder barns southeast of Herman.
The Shaners' barns became operational May 10 when the first roosters were delivered. Then hens were placed May 20-23. There are roughly 12,500 hens and 1,100 roosters per barn.
The facilities will be used to lay and collect fertilized eggs, which will then be transferred to the hatchery where they will be hatched and sent to the broiler barns.
Kolterman said the first batch of eggs are expected to be delivered to the hatchery in mid-July.
“I liken it to a cow-calf operation,” Jeff Shaner said. “We're producing the generation that will go on to be used for food.”
Shaner expects Lincoln Premium Poultry will pick up eggs from the farm twice a week. Eggs are stored in a climate controlled room until pickup.
In just a month, the barns have reached 10 percent production, or about 5,000 eggs per day.
“At maximum production, we'll hopefully get 49,000 eggs a day,” Kelli Shaner said. “Typically, it's one egg per hen a day.”
The process in collecting the eggs is automated. The chickens lay the eggs in nesting boxes with conveyor belts underneath. On that first day, one egg made its way down the conveyor belt.
“It was pretty neat that it worked the way it did,” Jeff said.
The Shaners and their three employees are at the barns on a daily basis, feeding the chickens and walking the floor, collecting eggs that didn't make their way into the nesting boxes.
“The purpose for that is to help train the chickens that the eggs don't go here,” Jeff said.
The couple's sons, Cameron, Ethan and Morgan, are also helping in the facility.
“It's a job they can do,” Kelli said.
Both Jeff and Kelli said seeing their barns become operational gives them a sense of accomplishment.
“We've accomplished one goal of actually receiving chickens and caring for them and learning the systems and how to do everything,” Jeff said.
The Shaners became involved in raising chickens as a way to diversify their crop operation, and it has already proven to be a valuable and worthy decision as they have been unable to plant their fields due to flooding along the Missouri River.
“I think it's been a blessing,” Jeff said. “Not only the simple diversification of it, but the timing of it, when it started and when we were able to actually get into the houses and start working on them and learning about it. It's given me something to do other than stand around and pull my hair out because I can't do what I should be doing.”