Lincoln Premium Poultry readies processing September start

Lincoln Premium Poultry’s feed mill in Fremont, Neb.

FREMONT, Neb. — Despite a heavy pull on available construction personnel in eastern Nebraska, Lincoln Premium Poultry’s (LPP) plan to begin processing chickens in September remains on target.

In the midst of Facebook building a 970,000-square-foot data center south of Omaha, and ongoing flooding repairs for homes, business buildings and other structures, construction on LPP’s processing facility proceeded without delay. The 400,000-square-foot facility in Fremont, Neb. includes a processing plant, feed mill, hatchery, live operations area and corporate offices, at an expected final cost of more than $450 million. The grower partners’ investment is $350 million. An early study estimated the economic impact of approximately $1.2 billion annually, or about 1 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

“We’ve had support from electricians, transportation, local feed haulers,” said Jessica Kolterman, LPP’s director of external affairs. “Every day I hear of another company working with us.”

LPP was established in 2016 to collaborate with Costco to produce the rotisserie chickens sold by the national member-only store. LPP has several levels of production, from introduction of chicks into those barns built by the grower partners, egg-laying hens and the precise size that Costco wants their rotisserie birds to be.

“We always thought this was a big project, but the scope has been incredible,” Kolterman said from LPP’s current offices in downtown Fremont. “We haven’t had any bad surprises, some little ones not on anyone’s list.

“When we started, just three or four of us sat around a table, squatters in a room in a bank. There were seven or eight of us after 10 to 12 months, and then it shot straight up. There are 130 today, 142 by next week and 350-ish in August.”

Eventually LPP will have 950 to 1,000 workers in Fremont, including 600 in two shifts in the processing plant. Up until this month, LPP hasn’t advertised for hiring workers, but still has had prospects trickling through the door. The help wanted sign was posted the second week of July and produced a steady line.

“It’s been fun to watch the team come together,” she said. “Skills have contributed to make it run well. It’s been a pleasant surprise, but most have been found in Nebraska — accounting, IT — incredible some of them have a clear skill set of poultry.”

She said the project’s top executive, Walt Shafer, would say it’s the best project he’s ever seen and refers to the staff as a passionate bunch.

“Some wish I had a big chart that shows the stages, but each stage has its own charts,” she said. “There are a lot of components, different teams in the project.”

The first chicks arrived at a barn complex near Hooper, Neb., in December. Since then six more locations have or have had birds, Kolterman said. LPP is done recruiting for more of the barn complexes, which consist of four barns per location.

There’s a family near Columbus, Neb., she said, where Mom and Dad agreed to four barns, and said it would be a great opportunity for their son and his wife, who then agreed. Then they added another son and a daughter.

“They have 16 barns altogether, surrounded by fields,” Kolterman said. “If you’re not looking for them, you’ll never see them.”

Siting of barns, as well as the entire Fremont facility, didn’t go without opposition. County boards and zoning officials heard from neighbors or others interested in the proposed sites.

“People are really surprised when they hear there are birds on the ground,” she said. “No different than row crops or livestock production. The trucks come and go.”

The barns are secure with strong biosecurity protocols.

“We’ve been approached by some animal welfare groups wanting to know what we’re doing,” Kolterman said. “Everyone in the company goes through training. We have a walkway in the facility that people will be able to walk through with windows so they can see inside the barn.

“The goal is to provide the public with a level of understanding and to see where their food is coming from. So when they shop at Costco, that rotisserie chicken may have been one they saw in the barns. That’s something Costco is interested in seeing.”

LPP avoided the flooding that left Fremont as an island in March. The facility is built on a 500-year flood plain.

“We had water all around, so each building was its own island,” she said. “We have holding ponds, too. One held 90 acre feet of water. A lot of the excess water from the Platte was captured and held in those ponds, and I think it helped lessen the flooding in Fremont.”

Terry Anderson can be reached at terry.anderson@lee.net.