Delmarva Poultry Forum: How Many Chickens are Too Many for the Eastern Shore?

    January 25, 2016

Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore (CBES) hosted a community forum on the impacts of industrial poultry production last week. Attended by well over 100 people on a snowy Wednesday night (Jan. 20) in the Eastern Shore town of Exmore, VA, the forum was moderated by Peabody Award-winning radio host Marc Steiner. The conversation will be broadcast this Thursday on Steiner’s show (10 a.m. to noon; 88.9 FM on WEAA Baltimore).

Please tune in for a fascinating conversation. Photo courtesy Citizens Concern for Eastern Shore

Here’s a brief recap.

The conversation started with two members of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Roger Everton, Manager of Water Compliance and Monitoring and Neil Zahradka, Mangager of the Office of Land Applications Programs, talked about the difficulties of regulating Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs — large poultry growing facilities that can house tens of thousands of birds).

Next, Maria Payan talked about her personal family experience when CAFOs moved in next to her small Pennsylvania horse farm. Payan said that her son, in particular, suffered major health problems.

“When something goes wrong, it goes really wrong,” Payan said. She talked about how large operations handle catastrophic mortality on their properties when something like avian flu hits.

“You can’t unring a bell,” Payan said.

Dr. Jillian Fry of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health talked about the various symptoms associated with living near CAFOS.

“Flies, allergic reactions, blue baby syndrome, GI problems, birth defects,” Fry said. “Not all of these experiences occur, but they represent the gamut of health concerns.”

She noted that dense poultry operations are particularly difficult for vulnerable populations – the elderly, very young and those with preexisting health conditions. She said that the regulatory environment should keep public health outcomes in mind, recommending that well water monitoring should be regularly occuring in areas near industrial poultry operations.

“People don’t test their water unless there is something wrong, unless it is brown,” Fry said.

Carole Morison told her story of being a contract poultry grower for Perdue for 23 years. She described being lured in for “part-time work for full-time pay.” After building the chicken houses, and packing them with birds she then needed supplemental income.

She said that she had two houses in the 1980s raising 54,400 chickens per year. She noted that industry now wants 60,000 birds per house.

Morison described a system where farmers go into debt to build the houses, but the integrators (the large chicken companies) own the chickens, the feed and the medicines. Each contract is for that particular flock (only) and can be canceled at any time, leaving a farmer with a large, underutilized operation alongside enormous debt.

“We’re modern day sharecroppers,” she said.

Morison got out of the contract growing business a few years ago.

She still, however, raises chickens.

After being featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film “Food, Inc.,” Morison converted her farm operation to pasture-raised layers. She sells the eggs from her 500 birds to Whole Foods.

“Those 500 hens earn me more than all those chickens ever did,” she said.

Marc Steiner went to the audience for questions. Before he took a question, he noted that 569 million chickens are raised on the Eastern Shore.

Questions from the public centered on disposal of birds that have died; how water quality is monitored — and whether it is traced  to a source; how many birds on the Eastern Shore are considered “capacity” for the land; impairment of land and waterways from excess nutrients; and the sustainability of the business model in the long-term.

One man, who did not identify himself aloud before the assembled crowd, said that he wanted to share a different perspective. He said that the Virginia Eastern Shore counties were the most prosperous in the early 19th Century. That was in measure due to the 20 food processing facilities and agriculture. He pointed out that there was vibrant economic activity in the towns and villages. Since then, food production has left (except poultry). Growing this sector could improve the economic outlook.

Morison, of Pokomoke City, MD, responded that if the area was at its most prosperous during this time of high agricultural production, why is it now the poorest when millions of birds are in production?

“Why is poverty so high?” she asked.

She feels that highly diversified agriculture: corn, soybeans, wheat, tomatoes and poultry is a better business model for sustainability.

Toward the end of the meeting, Jay Ford, the Virginia Shorekeeper, said that the Northampton County Board of Supervisors was working on zoning requirements, attempting to add setbacks for CAFOs in order to protect tidal streams. Chairman of the  Board  Spencer Murray, gave closing comments.

“The only local tool to regulate this industry is zoning… We will have clean water. We will not ruin our aquaculture,” he said.

If you miss the broadcast on Steiner’s Thursday show (10 a.m. to noon; 88.9 FM on WEAA Baltimore), check the website for a podcast later in the day.

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Mitchelle Stephenson is the campaign and communications manager for Fair Farms. She attended the forum last week.

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