BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Hemmed in by suburbia, state politics and grain transportation costs, California poultry rancher Scott Rumbeck is considering greener pastures for his chicks.
"We're a niche producer, so we're looking at everything we can do to reduce our grain costs and real-estate pressure," Rumbeck, a spokesman for Turlock-based Central Coast Farms, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "We are not opposed to looking at those opportunities outside of California."
Rumbeck's restlessness is one reason Idaho lawmakers are trying for a second year to revamp rules governing large poultry operations, including moving oversight from the state's environmental agency to its Department of Agriculture. A bill is now up for a state Senate vote, after clearing the House.
Rumbeck's company, which raises antibiotic- and growth stimulant-free broilers in open barns for high-end food markets including the San Francisco Bay Area, hasn't decided if it will pull up stakes. But it's at least eying southern Idaho's agricultural heartland, with its cheap corn, cheap land and a pro-ag atmosphere in the halls of government that may be more welcoming than that in Sacramento.
There are already 200,000 chickens in Idaho, but Republican Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, says more are on their way.
For instance, Jerome County is weighing approval for a 36,000-hen, 4,000-rooster operation that would provide eggs for an established business in nearby Burley owned by Iowa-based Hy-Line International. The Burley operation already ships millions of female chicks out of state every year for commercial egg producers.
In February, Poultry Products International announced a $2.75 million chicken processing plant in Burley.
"There are hundreds of thousands coming," Corder said. "The applications bear that out. They are on the way."
Here's why Idaho is working on this now: The state went from 180,000 cows in 1990 to 530,000 in 2009 to become the third-biggest milk producer after California and Wisconsin. But the arrival of mega-dairies caught regulators flatfooted — and prompted neighbors and environmentalists to cry foul over water pollution, dust and odors.
Corder and others behind the measure to regulate poultry operations are hoping to avoid those kinds of problems by acting before the chickens arrive en masse.
In addition to California's higher costs, voters have passed animal cruelty law that some say could drive out flocks of big egg farms. Proposition 2 in 2008 banned cramped cages for laying hens by 2015. Idaho's proposed poultry rules include no such limitations.
Among the provisions, new poultry feedlots — the regulations include ducks and turkeys, too — would have to get a state permit, while existing operations would register with the state by 2012. Idaho would require construction of wastewater facilities to conform to industry standards and make poultry farms draw up plans for how they would dispose of their manure.
And operators would pay a fee of 3 cents per square foot to fund state inspections. Violators could face $10,000 fines.
Currently, Idaho Departmental of Environmental Quality regulators intervene only when proposed chicken operations exceed 82,000 birds, leaving the remaining oversight in counties' hands.
Cassia County, where Burley is located, has approved a poultry ordinance, but Jerome County, where the 40,000-chicken operation is under consideration, is still working one.
"I would have preferred before we had an application, the state would have had what they're working on now in place," Jerome County Commissioner Cathy Roemer said. She said her staff has worked with lawmakers in Boise to keep tabs on the bill amid rumors that more chicken ranches are targeting her region.
Courtney Washburn, of the Idaho Conservation League, backed Corder's poultry bill when it passed the Idaho Senate last year before dying in the House.
She's more skeptical of the latest version, largely because it's been stripped of a provision that required posting a $100,000 bond. Its absence raises questions about who will pick up the tab should a mishap occur or a plant be abandoned, she said.
"Also, last year's version was much more prescriptive in terms of permit conditions, while this year's version leaves those largely to future rulemaking," Washburn said. "This bill is fine. Regulation needs to happen. But last year's bill was better."
Agricultural organizations, however, think the latest measure is great.
"We feel all agriculture should be regulated by the Department of Agriculture, rather than DEQ," said Wally Butler, of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
At a Senate committee hearing Thursday morning, Rumbeck's company said the proposed rules strike the right balance for California chicken ranchers looking to fly the coop — whether they alight in Idaho or not.
"Anything east is a potential," Rumbeck said. "Much comes down to the spreadsheet figures, climates, infrastructures, grain routes and the availability of a working force to facilitate what we see fit for our future."