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American Farm Towns, With Changing Priorities, Reject Industrial Agriculture

Meatpackers, including Tyson Foods and its chicken processing, struggle to win support for new plants

TONGANOXIE, Kan.—Rural Americans are turning their backs on the industry that made the U.S. the biggest meat-exporting country in the world.

Residents of Tonganoxie, a 5,300-person town in northeast Kansas, spent part of the fall hanging white-and-red placards that say “No Tyson in Tongie” on fenceposts and pickup trucks. Their efforts were part of a public push against Tyson Foods Inc., TSN -0.47% the largest U.S. meat processor by sales, which trumpeted in early September its plans to build a $320 million chicken-processing complex just south of town.

The investment, Tyson said, would bring 1,600 jobs to the area and deliver $150 million annually to the Kansas economy, in part because it would pay local farmers to raise chickens and buy locally grown grain to feed them. “Kansas will be an outstanding home for this Tyson complex,” said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who joined Tyson staff and local elected officials in Tonganoxie when they unveiled the plan.

Many residents, including farmers, disagreed. Online, they raised alarms about groundwater pollution, infrastructure burdens and noxious smells. With a relatively strong economy, and job flexibility that comes from proximity to the Kansas City metropolitan area, many weren’t persuaded by the promised economic benefits. Critics railed at Tyson’s proposed plant on radio shows and in local newspapers, and crowded into city council and county board meetings by the hundreds.

The debate that split Tonganoxie is taking place across rural America, where communities from California to North Carolina have turned away meat plants. Even in farm country—Kansas is the top wheat-growing state and third in cattle production—fewer people these days are directly involved in the sector, which has been battered by the worst downturn since the 1980s.

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