After collapse of Cooks Venture, chicken farmers look for answers

By Staff
17 Min Read

Editor’s note: This is part two of a series on what happened when Cooks Venture suddenly ceased operations in Arkansas. Click here for part one.

In December, several trucks carrying heavy foaming equipment idled outside of Lance Logan’s Alpena, Ark. farm, blocking the roads. The standoff between the grower and the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, went on for hours. 

Logan said he couldn’t trust Cooks nor the state. He had just signed a three-year contract and invested a lot of money to update one of his chicken houses shortly before the company sent its letter, Logan said in testimony at a joint agriculture committee hearing on Feb. 9.

“I’m told they’re going to kill all my chickens and leave them on my place in the houses to rot, or I could bury them,” Logan testified. “I have no way of burying 102,000 chickens. And my chickens weigh probably close to 5 pounds. So I locked the gates, and I wouldn’t let them foam my chickens until they told me a way to haul the chickens off.”

Patrick Fisk, director of the livestock commission, confronted Logan’s challenge. In a testimony, Logan said Fisk called him and cast blame for any dead birds on the property.

“This is not on me,” Logan said. “I would let them foam the chickens as long as they had trucks to haul them off. That’s all I was stating for two and a half weeks.”

At one point, Landon Logan, a poultry grower and Lance’s brother, showed up carrying a handgun on his hip, the Madison County Record reported Jan. 31. A supervisor alleged the gun was in full sight and created a safety risk for the workers, but Lance Logan insisted it was a concealed weapon.

“There’s been some things put in the newspapers and things said that’s not true,” Lance Logan said in testimony.

Eventually, a dumpster truck arrived and Lance Logan allowed the field workers to foam his birds. He received a partial payment from Cooks for his services.

“I had talked to other growers, and they still had all these chickens rotting in their houses. Some of them still have them in their houses,” Lance Logan said. “And these growers don’t have a way to get rid of them.”

The state’s response and moving forward

At the hearing, Arkansas lawmakers tried to get clarity on the situation, including the state’s role in the dispute between Cooks and its contract poultry growers, and where things went south.

Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward and Fisk expressed sympathy to the affected growers and explained how the department acted in the best interest of the state and the poultry industry. 

“The company called me and said they are flat-out broke. They have no money for feed. The birds will resort to cannibalism,” Fisk told lawmakers.

In a letter to a grower, Cooks indicated that it was responsible for the live birds and agreed to help in the removal process once the test results came back negative for highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as bird flu.

“We just tried to step in to try to eliminate any risk of [avian influenza] or the spread of disease in the state,” Fisk said in reference to avian influenza.

The disease, which can be fatal to chickens and in rare cases be transmitted to humans, has ravaged the poultry industry in recent years, disrupting markets and production. Officials have depopulated about 82 million birds across 47 states in the past two years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nine farms that raised chickens for Cooks were in an HPAI zone, according to a letter from the livestock commission, meaning they were within a 25-mile radius of farms that had recently tested positive for the virus and were under state restrictions that limited transportation.

Part of the commission’s role is to control, suppress and eradicate animal diseases and pests, according to Arkansas Statute 2-33-107. The department also has full authority over the supervision of livestock and poultry sanitation work.

The livestock commission maintained a supervisory role over the cleanup, Fisk said. The department had the funds and resources to eradicate but not dispose of the million or so birds in the northwest region of the state, Fisk said, “I put that onus on Cooks.”

The growers had two options for disposal: They could either bury the birds or compost them inside the chicken houses. There were some issues that the department addressed with certain growers, Fisk said, but the majority of birds were composted correctly.

The state considered other options before foaming the chickens. 

Fisk said the state commission sought another company or processor to take the birds, but no one was interested. The chickens were considered “compromised” and losing weight without feed.

“We could not find a processor willing to take those birds, that’s when we elected to depopulate,” Fisk said.

Throughout the hearing, state lawmakers expressed a range of concerns. Some blamed Cooks, while others saw flaws in the department’s actions.

“None of this would have happened if Cooks wouldn’t have misrepresented the contract, broke the contract or had any financial issues on their part,” state Sen. Tyler Dees said.

No Cooks representatives were present at the hearing to defend themselves.

State Sen. Matt Stone questioned why the commission elected to not complete the entire disposal process if the goal was to protect the industry from a disease outbreak.

“Cooks has come and gone,” Stone said. “Why would the balance of the process fall back on the poultry grower who is already distressed because they got into an almost bankrupt situation?”

Fisk said the commission lacked the proper equipment and would be inclined to take on those duties if the “funding and resources” were available.

“If you didn’t have the funding, why would the poultry growers themselves have the funding,” Stone asked.

“Fair enough,” Fisk replied.

‘Using every farm like it’s a trash can’

The morning of Dec. 13, field workers arrived at Dustin Maybee’s property with trucks and foaming equipment but were greeted with a surprise — a KY3 TV reporter ready to film the process.

But the livestock commission had a problem with the media being there. The supervisor requested the reporter to turn off the cameras and get away from the premises while the euthanization was taking place. Maybee said the reporter was his guest.

“The foreman of the state convoy told me that I did not have a right to have that reporter there on my farm or anybody else without his permission,” Maybee said in an interview with Agriculture Dive. He put on a GoPro camera and continued unrolling equipment for the foaming. Eventually, the state workers left.

Maybee said he tried calling Fisk to understand more. The reporter and camera crew left soon after the workers did. 

Around noon that day Maybee heard from Blake Evans, Cooks executive vice president, and COO Tim Singleton that the state’s workers left because they thought he was “being hostile, creating unsafe conditions and being unreasonable.”

At 1:25 p.m., state workers showed up again. This time unannounced. Maybee walked out to greet the workers with the GoPro. 

“‘We were told you were going to be cooperative, now turn that camera off,’” Maybee recalled the foreman saying. The grower declined and continued to assist with the foaming. 

After a moment, the foreman called the poultry grower over to his vehicle. “He said ‘Your farm is being placed under quarantine. We’re coming off the farm,’” Maybee recalled. “I said, ‘Are you going to euthanize the birds?’ ‘You’re not being cooperative so we’re pulling off’ — which I denied — and they left.”

Maybee called Cooks again to let the company know what happened. The birds, originally scheduled for killing, were still alive and hungry. Due to limited feed supplies, they went without food for a week before Evans called Maybee about next steps. By that time, the birds had been eating each other.

On Dec. 20, Maybee received a 10-ton shipment of grain for the birds, which translates to about two tons per house and just enough to fill the feed lines and the pans. The chickens would need more food to regain their weight.

Over the following days, Maybee got some shipments of feed and a random cast of people visited the farm. 

Field workers came to test for avian influenza, swabbing dozens of chickens inside the houses. Despite several visits, Maybee said his chickens never tested positive for the virus.

Collectors showed up to gather thousands of birds at a time to be transported for processing. 

Eventually, Cooks told Maybee that Simmons Foods, a nearby chicken processor, would collect the rest of the birds to be turned into dog food.

The last of the chickens were picked up on Jan. 19.

No flocks, no payments

Maybee said his 3-year-old daughter used to love going into the houses to see the chickens. She would watch with amazement as the mass of fluffy birds scratched, pecked and cooed. But once the feed grew sparse, he quit letting the child go into those houses.

The birds would turn violent and chase one another. Maybee said they often pecked at his legs. Some had holes in their bodies and guts hanging out.

“I kept those birds taken care of as long as I could,” the grower said. 

The typical lifespan of a meat chicken is close to 60 days. Maybee ended up raising his birds close to 114 days. “I have not received one single penny,” he said.

Maybee contacted the USDA multiple times to file a complaint under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a federal measure meant to protect contract poultry growers from unfair and deceptive practices, but little has been done about it. 

Maybee said there was nothing the federal agency could do until the birds were removed from the property. The USDA also told him that Cooks was within its rights to continue operating until it could generate the money owed.

“They said ‘You can’t get blood from a stone,’” Maybee recalled.

Upon learning that Cooks had ceased operations, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sent agents to Decatur, Ark., to investigate, and based on available evidence did not identify particular violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act, a spokesperson said in an email.

“AMS takes poultry grower complaints seriously,” the agency said. “Due to privacy concerns and as a matter of policy, AMS does not identify complainants nor comment on their complaints.”

Finding another chicken company to work with seemed out of the question for Maybee. 

Tyson Foods just went through a downsizing and nearby integrators George’s Inc. and Simmons Foods weren’t looking to expand their grower bases. Even if Maybee could join, that would involve spending money to retrofit his equipment to another company’s specifications.

“It baffles me that this can even be done,” Maybee said about the aftermath of Cooks’ sudden closure.

In the end, the state’s livestock commission killed about 1.3 million birds across 70 houses on 19 farms that grew for Cooks as of Dec. 13, according to a letter from the department

In testimony to lawmakers, Fisk said the whole effort cost taxpayers about $77,000. The commission is looking into mechanisms to recoup those funds.

As for Cooks, the company has shuttered. However, the property owned by Evans, grandson of Lloyd Peterson who was the founder of Peterson Farms and developer of the heritage chicken breed that Cooks used, is still in operation. 

Prior to Cooks, Evans founded Crystal Lake Farms. He used the genetics his grandfather helped develop to market a special free-range chicken. Crystal Lake grew its annual sales from $200,000 to nearly $15 million in less than five years, Talk Business and Politics reported. 

West Liberty Foods purchased the company, and Evans remained involved with the business until leaving in 2018 to pursue other interests.

Evans met Wadiak and struck a deal to repurchase Crystal Lake from West Liberty for a new company that became Cooks Venture. It was reportedly an eight-figure investment, including 57 poultry houses on more than 800 acres of farmland in Northwest Arkansas. Cooks, founded in 2019, folded about five years later.

On Maybee’s farm, the chicken houses on his property sit empty like other poultry farms in Northwest Arkansas. The flocks are gone and no more would be arriving at his doorstep.

“I thought about having to go back to construction, but I still have a mess to clean up here,” Maybee said.

He and other growers are pursuing legal action against Cooks in part for missing payments. They claim they had no idea the company was in financial trouble until they received the letter dated Nov. 17. The company closed at the end of the month. 

Poultry growers are supposed to have a 90-day written notice prior to termination or non-renewal of their contracts, according to the USDA. The exact date of when or if the contracts technically ended is uncertain.

Neither Evans nor Cooks responded to requests for comment.

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