Organic Broadcaster

Geese once enjoyed ample pastures at Carlos Valencia’s farm in rural Kansas. Pastures are empty today since county officials confiscated the flock and won’t give the farmer a permit to raise new birds.   Photo submitted

Farmer’s problems in rural Kansas smack of racial discrimination

By Bailey Webster,  MOSES

Kansas farmer Carlos Valencia is passionate about poultry. He has credentials in the field of poultry farming and processing as long as your arm. But, because of racially motivated mistreatment and impediments by Norton County, where his farm is located, he’s not able to have any livestock on his farm right now.

While most farmers struggle to make a living, not all have to contend with racial discrimination. For some, though, racism is a real and enduring problem, as Valencia’s story shows.

Valencia is black and Hispanic. He grew up in the Bronx in New York City. His parents were entrepreneurs who always worked for themselves. After high school, he got an associate degree in marketing management from New York Technical College. He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Long Island. He moved to Denver, Colorado to pursue a combined MBA/JD program at the University of Denver. The program wasn’t for him, so he quit a year in and started a business selling industrial and agricultural equipment overseas. Through a client, he got involved in selling chicken backs and necks to the Jamaican government.

The rest, as they say, is history. Valencia became deeply involved in the poultry industry. He closed his export business and went to Colorado State University (CSU) to study production and operations management and poultry science. He brought a unique perspective to the program with his background in marketing and finance, and was soon traveling all over the world working with poultry producers and scientists. He traveled to over 50 countries as part of his work. While still a student, he was invited to be a guest lecturer by CSU’s animal science department. After in-depth research at the USDA, he wrote the syllabus for a course on the commercial poultry industry, which he also taught.

He has worked as a poultry industry consultant in the U.S. and Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Valencia has owned two USDA-certified poultry processing plants. He has advanced training in HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an essential requirement for managing a poultry processing plant. He took a one-semester course on feed manufacturing at Kansas State University in preparation for operating the existing feed
mill at his current farm.

In 2007, Valencia began managing a farm in Norton, Kansas that was owned by Golden Duck LLC. He had a unique arrangement with the company—instead of earning regular wages, he was working for equity in the farm, with the goal of owning it himself eventually. He planned to raise poultry there, and had submitted paperwork to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to get the necessary farm operating permits to raise geese on a commercial scale. The paperwork was taking a long time to go through (it typically takes 3-5 months, depending on the complexity of the operation), and in the meantime he had to make a decision about his first season on the farm. Geese only hatch for a short period during the year (February – June), and if Valencia didn’t order his birds during that window of time, he wouldn’t be able to earn income from the farm for the first year.

Having submitted the paperwork in good faith, Valencia decided to start raising geese on the farm, even though his permits were still being processed. The previous farm owners had had an industrial hog operation, so he assumed his paperwork would go through without a problem. He started out with 20,000 goslings, which is a relatively modest number compared with many poultry operations in the area. Poultry farms often will have 500,000 to over a million birds at a time.

In June of that first year, misfortune struck. After several weeks of extremely hot, dry weather, there was an unusually strong hailstorm that killed 800 of Valencia’s birds. With so many birds dead, he chose to incinerate them, a common practice on poultry farms. The local authorities caught wind of it, and panicked that the birds had died because of disease. The USDA and the state did biopsies on the dead birds to check for disease. The results confirmed that there was no disease present.

However, due to the lack of a permit, Norton County confiscated all of Valencia’s birds anyway and sold them at auction for a fraction of their value. He was ordered to stay off of the property (under threat of arrest) while they removed the birds. The county also gave away thousands of dollars’ worth of his poultry equipment to the people who came to the auction to buy the geese. Valencia didn’t receive any of the money, and in fact was charged $10,000 for feed that was brought in during the confiscation process, even though there was about 64 tons of feed grain in bins on the farm at the time. The fact that he had filed paperwork for the proper permits was not taken into account, and Valencia was not given the opportunity to explain his situation.

Beginning in 2010, Valencia’s farm was vandalized three times. $15,000 worth of equipment was stolen, and the vandals damaged property throughout the farm, shooting bullets through several windows, his van, and a doorknob. While two perpetrators were caught and made to return some of his property, they received only a $1,500 fine each and a warning. The county kept the fine, and even though Valencia filed a motion to receive the money as partial compensation, he never received any money for the thefts or the damage done to his property.

In the last few years, Valencia has been working toward organic certification of his farm. His dream is to have a combined poultry and vegetable operation, all of which would be certified organic. He has again experienced significant setbacks, however.

Two years ago he was notified by the county that he had to control a noxious weed problem on his farm, or they would have the weeds sprayed and Valencia would be charged. He communicated to the county verbally and in writing that he was working toward organic certification, and would be managing the weeds without chemicals. He demonstrated an earnest effort to comply, including submitting photos of weeds that he had mechanically removed and bagged. He also submitted names and phone numbers of witnesses who had worked with him on the problem. Nevertheless, the county hired someone to go onto his property and spray his weeds with chemicals while he was away from the farm. To cover the cost of the spraying, his taxes were increased by 80%.

Last year the situation repeated itself, although this time Valencia had notified the county that he would be in the hospital for several days having back surgery, and wouldn’t be able to manage the weeds until he recovered. While he was in the hospital, the county sent an airplane pesticide applicator out to spray his entire farm (which is only 45 acres). Again, he was billed for the spraying.

Carlos Valencia and his dog, Paco, live on a farm in rural Kansas. He has faced numerous issues with officials and vandals that have prevented him from achieving his farming goals.  Photo submitted

This year Valencia has been able to get a handle on his weed problem using mechanical means, and the county has not sprayed his land. Officials have been out to inspect his farm, consistently showing up when he was away from the farm. He has specifically requested by phone, in writing, and in person that they notify him before they come onto his property.
Because the farm was sprayed by the county last summer, he will have to wait another two years before he can get his land organically certified. Undeterred, Valencia is busy putting up greenhouses where he will grow hydroponic vegetables, which he hopes to have organically certified as early as September of this year. He’s also growing microgreens, using organic seed and potting soil. He has pending sales pitches out to two large grocery chains.

Valencia’s true passion is poultry, but the county won’t give him a permit for livestock until he pays off the money he owes for the sprayings and the feed charge from the confiscation. In the meantime, Golden Duck LLC, the company he originally worked for, dissolved leaving Valencia the farm along with debts of approximately $250,000. Since he moved to the farm in 2007 until now, he has worked various off-farm jobs to make ends meet and pay down that debt to about $10,000 at this point.

Valencia has 100,000 square feet of barn space, where he wants to be raising poultry. He’s also retrofitting a 13,000-square-foot poultry barn to turn it into a greenhouse by himself. He’d like to find someone who’s interested in learning from him and taking over the farm in the next 4-5 years. He dreams of finding someone who wants to put in an organic goat operation—someone “mature, ambitious, and hard-working.” He has some large-scale poultry equipment, including a machine that will sort 12,000 eggs per hour. He’s also interested in reactivating the existing feed mill to produce 25# bags of organic poultry feed for small-scale farmers.

Right before this article went to print, Valencia reported new developments. He recently received a courtesy note from Norton County announcing that his property tax is in arrears, even though he has been paying it down consistently. At this point, 30% of what he is paying is actually going toward the taxes, and a whopping 70% is going toward fees and penalties. He is nearly caught up on his 2016 and 2017 taxes, but can’t appeal the taxes unless he pays them first. Valencia had paid past taxes of $6000 with the understanding that he could file an appeal after that. However, once the taxes were paid, his appeal was denied.

In addition, a week after he had been cleared by the county as in compliance with his noxious weed problem, he received a call from a county official announcing that he had seen two of the weeds on Valencia’s property, and that if they weren’t removed within 24 hours, “there will be trouble.” The location of the field in question was over a quarter of a mile from any road, so Valencia asked how the county official had seen them. He claimed to have spotted them with binoculars. The county official called the sheriff, and the three men drove out to the far corner of the property to assess the weed situation. Valencia pulled and bagged a total of five weed plants. At one point, the sheriff asked, “Why am I here?”

Valencia believes his mistreatment by local authorities stems from racial prejudice. The roadblocks, extremely high fees, and petty behavior by county officials make him think there are people actively setting up the legal framework to take his property from him. He knows white farmers in the area who experience completely different treatment from the community. Looking through the mountain of evidence that he has collected in the 11 years he has been on his farm, it’s difficult to argue with his position.

When asked why he keeps going in spite of his struggles, Valencia, now in his 60s, replied, “I have always been ambitious—that’s always been my problem. My mother and father never worked for anyone, and I picked up that entrepreneurial virus.”

Valencia is good friends with Steve Jeltz, former Major League Baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals. Jeltz lived and farmed in Norton, Kansas for a few years, where he got to know Valencia. He owned 5 houses and a 110-acre ranch in Norton. While he was there, he coached the local high school baseball team, taking them from lousy to champions in just a couple seasons (think: “Remember the Titans,” baseball version). He was basically run out of town a few years ago by racial prejudice and discriminatory treatment, and ended up losing all of his properties. When asked about his friend’s treatment in Norton, he didn’t sugarcoat his answer.

“Yeah, they’re ruthless,” he said. “They’re stuck in the 50s and 60s, I think.” Jeltz left Norton because it became increasingly clear that he would wind up in jail or worse if he didn’t. “Carlos tries to do everything by the book,” he continued. “He’s very intelligent, far more intelligent than most people in Norton. But, he’s fighting a losing battle.”

Jeltz points out that Valencia has put everything into his farm, and wouldn’t get a good price if he tried to sell it. The neighbors have expressed eager interest in purchasing the farm at a “fire sale price, which Valencia has consistently rejected.

If you have feedback for MOSES on this article, or anything to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion, please email equity@mosesorganic.org. To find out how you can become involved in ending racism and injustice in agriculture, check out these resources: www.soulfirefarm.org, plantingjustice.org, showingupforracialjustice.org.

Bailey Webster is a MOSES team member and an
organic vegetable grower.

 

 

From the July | August  2018 Issue

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