Food is not always something that you put in your mouth and eat!

As I watched the news this morning and heard the comments made by the so-called pundits, I realized that I’d heard nothing positive, good, happy, or just straight news.  The morning shows were quite a downer with lots of moaning and groaning as well as complaints.  I’m so ready to see and hear the end of the election and political mess, NO MORE!  It’s as if all have a glass that’s half empty rather than half full.  Gosh, does anyone have anything positive or nice to say?

Thanksgiving is upon us and it’s supposed to be a time of family and friends, sharing, caring, and joy.  It’s my favorite holiday and I’m truly thankful for all in my life.  I always say, “it could be a lot worse”.  If that thought doesn’t straighten up the doom-sayers, I’m at a loss to say what will.

I enjoy cooking Thanksgiving dinner with the scents of turkey roasting, stuffing being made, and scented candles throughout the house. Surrounded by family and friends is the best! I also enjoy eating the dinner, way too much, until I’m to the point of being stuffed.  I’m always thankful for the farmers and workers who made the food possible.  I do think about the cost of producing the food and I don’t mean the price of the food.

What do I mean?  I think that in today’s, day and age, most never think about where and how the food appeared on their dinner tables nor do they care.  It’s just there!  There are many “invisible people” along the way, finger prints on your food, if you will, that are never seen or thought about.

Producing food is hard work.  Starting on the farms where everything is grown or raised many don’t realize the efforts made toward their enjoyment.  The farmer has invested much time, energy, and care, not to mention cost, in bringing consumers the food that they eat.  Being a farmer myself, I still give thanks to my colleagues.  I know what’s been invested along the way of growing or raising food.  I also know the little thanks that are expressed to the farmer for the job that they do.  One of the most enjoyable things, to me, is when a customer says thank you for doing what you do.

Although I hate to contribute to the “downers list of wrong”, I must say that the first time that I was chatting with middle school kids during a presentation and asked “do you know where your food comes from” and I heard the answer “from the store” I was so disappointed.  Somewhere along the way, a disconnect to food has occurred.  Farmers have become the invisible thread in the fabric of society.

Many efforts are put forth in teaching our young about food however most of the teachings are about what food should or shouldn’t be part of the daily diet.  While there is nothing wrong with those teaching’s, it’s sad, at least to me, that our young don’t know the origins of the food they eat.  My thoughts about this are more than likely considered to be “old school” by many, but I think that appreciation of something that sustains daily growth, and life, should be identified and known.

This year as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, do yourself a favor.  Initiate conversation about the food on the table.  As each exclaims the “oh, this is so good”, over their favorites, talk about the origins of the food.  Pass down through the generations your knowledge about the food and teach the young one’s appreciation of what’s on their dinner plates.  For instance, do they know that a yam/sweet potato grows underground or that the grain that made the bread crumbs or cubes for stuffing grows above ground?  Give special thanks to the farmers because without them, no one would be enjoying Thanksgiving dinner.

I, for one, am looking forward to tomorrow.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  Enjoy!

Many publications, information, stories, etc. cross my desk each morning.  So many in fact, that it’s hard to go through all of them before the end of the day.  After reading several hoopla stories about two global food service companies committing to a policy of sourcing slower growing breeds of chickens by 2024 induced my “need to know” exactly what it all meant.

I’ve often talked about the genetic mixing of breeds of chickens to achieve a product that performs to company desires.  With chickens, which I’m overly familiar, I’ve seen what the genetic blending produces.  Animal welfare concerns are the furthest desire on the company list of traits to achieve.

The two global food service companies, Compass Group USA, based in Charlotte, NC, and Aramark based on Philadelphia, PA, are the latest to lay claim to animal welfare policy.  Both companies have agreed to adhere to the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) standards, a non-profit, 5-step animal welfare certification program.

I was elated to read that, finally, genetics and the relationship to animal welfare would be a goal for buyers of industrial related chicken production.  Often, genetics mixing is designed with rapid growth, larger breast, and improved rates of feed conversion (feed cost versus pounds of meat raised) in mind. How fast can we grow a chicken at the lowest cost is the industry mantra.

Witnessing rapid growth, first hand, that often resulted in heart attacks because internal organs couldn’t keep up with the growth of the chicken and skeletal structure not keeping pace with growth, resulting in broken bones, mostly legs, was one of the main reasons I became disenchanted with industrial contract farming.  Thus, my elation over genetics being addressed in the massive production of chickens.

Although, I thought, that the year 2024 was a lengthy amount of time to achieve the goals of sourcing slower growing chickens, the thought of standards addressing the genetic mixing issue was far more important.  I figured that such large food service companies would need time to adapt and secure sources that could meet the standards.

I went to the GAP website to review the standards and my bubble burst!  The actual standards addressing genetics and slower growing birds has yet to be developed.  The organization intends to have the standards by 2024.  I thought to myself, how could any company, much less global ones, commit to something that hasn’t been developed.   Much can happen and change in 8 years.

It occurred to me that maybe I was missing something because the whole announcement made no sense.  Digging deeper, I found that I hadn’t missed anything.  I was so disappointed because well-known organizations quoted in the Aramark press release, such as the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) and Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) are celebrating the announcement.

The executive director of GAP, Anne Malleau, is quoted as saying “As a global leader in farm animal welfare, GAP is proud to see a company like Aramark move toward changes that could benefit thousands of animals every year.  Aramark knows that consumers increasingly demand that farm animals are raised with a higher quality of life.  They’re looking for transparency and certification they can trust.”

GAP, first created by Whole Foods (WFM), was launched in 2008 in the UK, as a pilot Step Rated Program at its flagship store in London, England.  Implementing an independent organization owning and developing a farm animal welfare certification program was the brainchild of WFM’s co-CEO John Mackey who felt that a greater impact could be developed internationally.  From that idea, GAP was created.

WFM has also committed to GAP’s future standards for chicken genetics.  Now I know folks, for a fact, that WFM is committed to farm animal welfare having sold eggs to several of the company’s stores.  To get my product on store shelves, I had several farm visits from company representatives prior to entering the market.

However, I must say that I didn’t understand WFM’s commitment to a non-existent standard any more than I didn’t understand all the other participant’s commitments.  Don’t get me wrong folks, I applaud all efforts to improve farm animal welfare.  If all parties involved fulfill their commitments 8 years from now, it will indeed be wonderful.

It all started to make sense when I found that HSUS, CIWF, and WFM hold seats on the Board of Directors of GAP.  It appears to me that all will have a hand in developing the standards for acceptable chicken genetics for GAP.  That’s all fine and good but why the emphasis on a proclaimed “historical” announcement for something that won’t make history for 8 more years?

A few months ago, the same type of announcement was made by Perdue, and lauded by the same animal welfare parties.  The issue of genetics was announced as Perdue MAY consider slower growing breeds of chickens.  MAY is the operative word, not WILL!  Consumers are now swearing that Perdue has switched to slower growing breeds of chickens and are boosting company sales for something that is smoke and mirrors.

I’m still confounded and moves such as this one will surely confuse consumers further than they already are.  It’s inherent upon those of us who advocate for farm animal welfare and good husbandry practices to make certifications, labels, and claims as simplistic as possible for consumers.  Transparency, honesty, and appearances are important.  Slick moves have no room in efforts by all who are working toward change in production of food animals.  Once trust is lost it’s hardly ever regained!

Denial of bathroom use at forefront of poultry worker complaints

A friend sent me a post from the U.S. Department of Labor blog to settle a friendly dispute over poultry processing works rights and free access to the bathroom. I was adamant in my belief that poultry workers had “at need access” in using a bathroom because this same abuse was fought at least 15 years ago by a community organization I worked for, the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance (DPJA). I’m going back to the late 1990’s – early 2000’s.

At that time the basic right of workers using a bathroom was denied because it would slow down or stop the processing line. To do so would cost the company dollars and in their greed stopping the line was not an option.

I was shocked to learn that people were denied use of the bathroom and I couldn’t fathom urinating on one’s self. I doubt that most of us could identify with such conditions, let alone being the one to say “no you can’t use the bathroom”. Unfortunately, my tenure as the executive director of DPJA brought many such shocks, and not to discount other serious issues, right now, I’m taking about using the bathroom.

No poultry company on the Delmarva Peninsula was immune from the complaints made by their workers. Stories from the workers encompassed many complaints such as urinating on their selves, pregnant workers being denied bathroom use as needed, and break time lines for bathroom use so long that the ten minutes allowed for a break were eaten up just standing in line waiting to use a toilet.

From the industry point of view, excuses were made such as workers abused bathroom breaks, no alternate or fill in workers were available to replace a worker leaving the line, and they get a ten-minute break to use the bathroom. Company flat out denial of worker complaints was the most used response.

Any worker who complained to supervisors or company powers that be, very quickly found their selves out the door. As most workers were undocumented immigrants, fear of reprisals kept them quiet. From my point of view I found it as being a method of control and exploitation.

As a matter of fact, DPJA lead a protest in Georgetown, DE, in front of one Delmarva poultry processing plant to deliver a letter to the company owner as an informational method of complaints by workers for abuses occurring inside the plant. The protest involved community members, church leaders, workers, and alliance members. Denial of bathroom use was one of the worker’s complaints. Afterwards workers reported that some things had changed and that those abusing basic human rights for workers were no longer there.

Fast forward to 2016

From all indications and as much as I hate to say it, my friend is correct. I have to concede to her as the winner of our debate. What a hollow victory! It boggles my mind to think that the very same issue is once again at the forefront of poultry processing plant worker’s complaints. Did industry learn nothing or is it a matter of continuing with a bad legacy until caught? I’m not particularly fond of the saying, “history repeats itself”, especially when it is a not so good history.

“For some workers, a simple trip to the bathroom could result in the loss of a job. Poultry-processing workers are sometimes disciplined for taking bathroom breaks while at work because there is no one available to fill in for them if they step away from the production line. Some workers have reported that they wear diapers and restrict liquid intake in an effort to avoid using the bathroom. No one should have to work under these conditions. All workers have a right to a safe workplace, and that includes access to readily available sanitary restroom facilities on the job. Poultry processing is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, and readily accessible restrooms are only one of many problems that workers in this industry face.” Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Although this blog post was written back in July 2016, it’s relevant to the debate between my friend and I. She further burst my bubble with a link to a 2015 report published by Oxfam America. After reading it I thought to myself that nothing has changed. Over all of the time that passed between my employment at DPJA to the 2015 Oxfam report the simple basic human right of using the bathroom is being denied by employers in the poultry industry.

Coming from a common sense point of view, it’s obvious that denial of bathroom use is blatant and those practicing the behavior are unashamed. I think it takes a seriously disturbed person to find amusement in the behavior indicated in the Oxfam report.

“Routinely, poultry workers say, they are denied breaks to use the bathroom. Supervisors mock their needs and ignore their requests; they threaten punishment or firing. Workers wait inordinately long times (an hour or more), then race to accomplish the task within a certain timeframe (e.g., ten minutes) or risk discipline.” Quote from Oxfam America report, “No Relief, Denial of Bathroom Breaks In The Poultry Industry

For poultry workers having to come forward and speak about the goings on inside processing plants must be a humiliating experience. I, myself, wouldn’t want to have to tell anyone that I wear a diaper to work or that I defecate or urinate on myself while working. I can’t imagine!

Where are those who would ensure such a basic right? This type of abuse should not be tolerated by poultry company owners, stockholders, or consumers. Obviously, our government is aware of the situation, what is being done about it? We are supposed to be a civilized society. Is the processing of one more chicken, in the millions that are slaughtered every day, more important?

This subject started as a friendly debate and has turned in to a feeling of outrage. Again! I’m sure that I’ll write plenty more on this subject as I digest all that I’ve read. What does it take to end a vicious cycle of history repeating itself?

Like waiting for the dust to settle I’ve been allowing my first gut reaction to calm over the chicken buzz about Perdue and its monumental step toward improving the lives of chickens. Perdue announced its commitment to improved animal welfare in the raising, transporting, and slaughtering of the company’s chickens.

The company commitment centers around a published company document “Perdue Foods, Commitment to Animal Care 2016 and Beyond”.  Amongst all of the hoopla surrounding the big news, the company says that it will chart its progress based on the Five Freedoms which is claimed to be “A Global Standard For Animal Husbandry”.

The Five Freedoms was developed in Europe in 1965, and formalized by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979 standard for animal husbandry.  The UK Farm Animal Welfare Council provided opinions and advice to Governmental entities and ceased to exist in 2011.  It resurfaced that same year as the Farm Animal Welfare Committee serving the same role as its predecessor.  According to the UK Government Archives the “Five Freedoms” are:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  1. Freedom from Discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  1. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  1. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  1. Freedom from Fear and Distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

In addition to the Five Freedoms, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee also wrote in an opinion to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, England, Chief Veterinary Officer, Scottish Government, and the Chief Veterinary Officer, Welsh Government that ~

The concept of sustainability must include the welfare of farm animals. Indeed, livestock agriculture cannot be considered sustainable if an animal’s life is not worth living”.

In my humble opinion, the “Five Freedoms” are very basic things that any human should provide for the animals they own no matter if it’s livestock or pets.  If this action is called monumental I hate to think about the conditions that the chickens lived in before this monumental announcement.  Yes indeedy folks, it’s wonderful that a multi-national chicken corporation has learned the basics of animal care however I have to say that I hope none of those Perdue folks have animals at home.

Some animal welfare organizations have lauded Perdue for its announcement but have also conveyed a “we will see” approach, and I agree.  If anyone truly transforms from the status quo in the method of raising industrial chickens, they deserve to be lauded.   As much as I would love to think that the day for change in industrial chicken production has finally come, I’m still a doubting Thomas.

I believe that public opinion has induced Perdue to take a step toward improved animal welfare.  2 Years ago I conducted a marketing analysis of my own customer’s to identify consumer preferences in purchasing my eggs.  Animal welfare (how the animals are raised) was the number one reason for product purchasing.  Certification by a transparent and independent third party was at the top as well.  In my case it’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) that audits my farm annually and certifies that I meet all of the written and published standards.  The standards are the most stringent in the country.  Consumers have become more aware of where their food comes from and how it was produced and these concerns have risen to the top of the list of purchasing decisions.

What was a niche market for products raised humanely has now become a market to capture.  This not only resonates in the United States but worldwide.  The World Bank has a statement about animal welfare based on the “Five Freedoms” and looks favorably for investing in livestock production (especially pigs and chickens) with corporations that have a “Five Freedoms” animal welfare policy.

Since I’m talking about policy at the moment I’ll bring us back to Perdue.  Most everyone knows that the farmers that the company contracts with to raise its chickens, known as contract growers, have no control over the policies set by the company.  They have to follow what the company says.  For the life of me I can’t ever remember receiving a policy handbook from the company in the 23 years we raised chickens as contract growers.  I distinctly do remember being given a verbal edict many times from the company about how to raise the chickens followed up with “it’s company policy”.  Although I asked for a copy of the company policy handbook, I was ignored and didn’t receive it.

In the monumental announcement the company says it will listen more to the farmers it contracts with.  Perdue also has finally written down on paper and published its intentions of improving the lives of chickens.  Although vague, the document does say that the company will operate off of the “Five Freedoms”.  Since transparency is involved in the monumental announcement I’d like to see specifics from the company of exactly what it means.

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story “ Perdue Aims to Make Chickens Happier and More Comfortable pretty much writing the same things that every other news source was saying.  Ironically, a little under a year ago, the New York Times ran a story Perdue Sharply Cuts Antibiotic Use in Chickens and Jabs at Its Rivals talking about the company product of “no antibiotics ever”.  About half of the company’s chickens are labeled and sold under the “no antibiotics ever” claim.

My first thought is that yesterday the company transformed into a company that gave consumers what they were asking for (no antibiotics) and today Perdue will be violating item number 3 of the “Five Freedoms” by not treating a sick animal just because it needs to be sold under the “no antibiotics ever” label.

You can’t claim it both ways without violating one or the other claims.  I guess whichever method “Five Freedoms” or “No Antibiotics Ever” will be decided by the profits the company reaps.  So much for the monumental step the company has taken.

The challenge for consumers will be in figuring out which brand under the FPP Family Investments umbrella, owned by the Perdue Family, fits which claim the headlines are shouting.

A friend shared a news story with me that appeared in the Bay Journal “EPA sued over inaction on factory farm air pollution”. Although an old story from 2015, my friend wanted me to see it because it mentions the Chesapeake watershed and Maryland CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations). The CAFO’s in Maryland are, of course, chicken house developments on the Eastern Shore.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Environmental Integrity Project are part of a coalition of environment, animal welfare, and community health organizations bringing the suit and saying that EPA has not done its duty in protecting citizens.

It kinda ticked me off that the EPA has to be sued to do its job. Aren’t they there for the purpose of protecting American citizens? Don’t we pay their salaries through the many tax dollars we shell out to the federal government each year? I sat here and shook my head thinking, so what else is new.

The groups involved in the law suit filed petitions in 2009 and 2011 asking EPA to set national ambient air quality standards for ammonia, which can be harmful to farm laborers, chickens, and neighboring homes. It can also be harmful to the farmer that breathes it every day. Ammonia is at the crux of the issue which is built up in chicken houses from the concentrations of the number of animals housed. The buildup of ammonia is released into the atmosphere through huge fans that exchange the air on the inside of the chicken houses. While ammonia can’t be seen with the naked eye, it’s quite evident, when watching the fans come on in a CAFO, to see a huge plume of dust shoot out and drift into the atmosphere. There are many things in that plume which can be harmful however we will focus on ammonia.

A while back in 2008 and 2009, I worked on a project that measured the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emitted from CAFO’s on the Delmarva Peninsula, including Accomack County, VA up through Sussex County, DE. The farms were mapped using GPS as identification and the measured emissions noted. Some of the CAFO’s in the Backbone Corridor Neighborhood Association’s neck of the woods in Princess Anne, MD, I went back and quadruple checked to make sure that the readings I was recording were accurate.

In a meeting with representatives from environmental groups and a representative of EPA I showed the EPA representative a few of the findings. I remember that he was somewhat miffed at me because I wouldn’t give the name of the owner of the farms only the GPS location of the readings. At that time I asked for the EPA to conduct a more in depth study to verify what I’d found. We went our separate ways and I never heard another word about the issue.

Under the Clean Water Act, CAFO’s are required to have a discharge permit for runoff into our waterways. Under the Clean Air Act no permit is required for emissions. One would think that it would be common sense for any facility emitting noxious gases into the air would have to report type of gas, amounts, and have a permit to do so.

Looking further in to the issue, from a public health aspect, it’s a no brainer that the gases polluting the air from CAFO’s would create serious health problems. Keeve Nachman, director of Food Production and Public Health at Johns Hopkins Center For A Livable Future verifies this. He says that the health problems don’t just stem from ammonia emissions but from the cumulative consequences of the gases, particulate matter and pathogens. “Taken together, living close to one of these things [CAFO’s], put’s one’s health at risk. EPA is not interested to take measurements or survey for adverse health effects.”

Further research reveals that avian influenza has been shown to travel on the wind after the air is exhausted from fans in poultry houses, according to information obtained from the U.S. National Library of Health, National Institutes of Health (NIH).

With all of the public health, environmental health, and animal health and welfare implications, why hasn’t EPA or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services researched further to protect the public? Are the government agencies protecting industry rather than the public?

It’s quite a knot to untangle the whys and wherefores of the issue and gives me a headache just thinking about it. Given history and the power involved I imagine we will be bogged down in a quagmire of hearings, excuses, and untruth and the matter will never be addressed. Knowing all of this, I still have to wonder how profits before people are more important.

On February 5, 2016 Maryland Senators Madaleno, Lee, Manno and Pinsky introduced legislation in the Senate known as the Farmers Rights Act (SB761).  The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

A companion bill (HB 1496) was introduced in the Maryland House of Representatives on February 12, 2016 by Delegates Washington, Carr, Frush, Gutierrez, Kelly, Lam, Moon, Morales, Melnyk, Robinson, Smith, and Tarlau.  It was referred to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

The House Committee hearing is scheduled for today and the Senate Committee hearing is scheduled for March 9, 2016.

The legislation aims to provide farmers certain measures of protection in dealing with large companies that contract with them to produce company owned livestock.  Most of this country’s chicken (97 percent) and hogs are raised under production contracts.

Understanding the nature of the beast, so to speak, is important to understanding the need for protections for farmers.

Most U.S. broiler (meat chicken) production is under contract with a broiler processor (chicken company). The grower (farmer) supplies the chicken house with all the necessary heating, cooling, feeding, and watering systems. The grower also supplies the labor needed in growing the birds. The broiler processor supplies the chicks, feed, and medications. The chicken company transports its chickens from the farm to the processing plant. In most cases, the company supplies the crews who catch the chickens for transportation to the company slaughter plant.  This is known as vertical integration whereby the company owns everything from embryo to market shelf.

On average, off-farm income accounts for half of the total household income earned by contract growers (USDA Economic Research Service). While millions of dollars are invested by farmers in land, housing, and equipment it is not an investment with a return that can support a family.  It has been said by farmers that collectively they invest at least half of the capital needed in the poultry industry.  Many sources say that over 70 percent of contract farmers earn a below poverty level income from the chickens they raise for companies.

Many contract farmers feel that they don’t have equal power in the relationship between company and farmer although they have huge investments. The cost of 1 new chicken house today is approximately $380,000.  While contracts are clear in saying that the farmer provides a service to the company, things get confusing and muddled with the company control of that service provided.  Looking further into the contract, the price paid to the farmer for his/her service is an epic conundrum.

At the heart of it all is that everything relies on “good faith”.  As a matter of fact the Farmers Rights Act begins by saying “For the purpose of establishing that certain contracts for the production of livestock impose a certain obligation of good faith on all parties;”.

Payment to farmers relies on pounds of broiler meat moved from the farm versus costs acquired to raise the flock of chickens.  Based on the “good faith” of the company that weights stated are actual and true, is a good place to start.  Was the company feed truck that delivered company feed to the farm really delivering the amount of feed stated?  Were the weights stated for the chickens that moved off the farm by the company truck and weighed on the company scales, actual?  Many growers question this?

Part of the “good faith” related to the Maryland legislation is that many times companies demand upgrades to poultry housing and equipment.  Farmers bear the burden of cost for the upgrades adding to an already extreme shortage of cash flow on the farm.  The contract is used in the process with a promise from the company that the contract will be terminated if the farmer doesn’t comply.

Although it’s questionable as to whether a service contract can be controlled by the party receiving the service insofar as what the service provider uses to accomplish the service, which with chickens the service is to raise them to a marketable weight.

Forcing a farmer to continually add debt on top of existing debt comes with no guarantee that the company will continue to contract with the farmer.  Contracts have been terminated and the service provider (farmer) is left with no way pay the debt incurred because of the inducement by the company.

It could be further argued that when poultry houses are originally built it is done so accordingly to company specifications.  Those specifications change, frequently.

There exists an imbalance of power within the contract system and undue influence is held by companies over the farmer through the contract.

Good Faith is described as “an honest intent to act without taking an unfair advantage over another person”. 

However, contracts are nonnegotiable, designed by the company, and offered on a take it or leave it basis.  The “unfair advantage” is easily seen in the take it or leave it when the farmer has to take it to have chicks delivered to the farm by the company.  How else would the farmer service the debt?

Some of the imbalance in power is corrected with the Farmers Rights Act providing a mechanism for farmers to recapture capital investment and is something that will help curb company demands to spend more money based on a whim and induced by a contract.

Opponents of the legislation aren’t doing the chicken companies any favors.  If “Good Faith” exists as what’s being argued than they have nothing to worry about over the bill and it becoming law.  Unless, of course, “Good Faith” doesn’t really exist.

My post from yesterday  Jihadists, Beheadings? In Maryland?  alluded to the tightly woven web within the State of Maryland and the chicken industry on the Delmarva Peninsula.  I’m not just picking on Maryland.  The Peninsula or the Eastern Shore, as it’s often called, also encompasses parts of Delaware and Virginia.

I’ve been chastised and reminded that it’s not just Maryland.  For that matter I could go further and say that, in my humble experiences, I’ve seen the very same things across the country in any place the poultry industry sets up shop.

For all of you unidentified and not so friendly people out there that I’ve heard from —

Yes, I admit, I do, enthusiastically, support the Poultry Litter Management Act (PLM) introduced in Maryland’s House and Senate (SB 496) (HB 599).  I also encourage everyone to read the PLM Fact Sheet to clear up all of the misconceptions and downright untruths floating around.  Being informed and making up your own mind is the best gift you could give yourself, and it’s free.

There are several reasons why I’m in favor of the PLM.

Firstly and most importantly, the Chesapeake Bay belongs to all of us. It’s a National Treasure.  There isn’t any single one of us who has the right to continue to destroy it and, yes, this is a pet peeve of mine.  All of the efforts to clean up the Bay are not working as every year we see more or expanding “dead zones” appear.  Major culprits who are degrading the Bay have not owned up and said “I’m going to accept my responsibility, because I care”.

The chicken companies who operate on the Delmarva Peninsula have been in denial since the very first day that disastrous consequences struck.  I can go all the way back to the mid 1990’s when the Eastern Shore had a horrific outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida.  Massive fish kills and human illnesses abounded.  Nutrient overload mixed with the right weather conditions was identified.  Upon further investigation runoff from chicken manure became part of the mix. The poultry industry immediately started pointing fingers, mostly at farmers.  I might add that this was my environmental awakening as a contract farmer, and realizing that we had serious problems, in in more ways than one.

Coupled with blaming farmers, local watermen who make their living from the bounty of the Bay were the ones being most affected.  Denial of responsibility by chicken companies pointing the finger at farmers and watermen affected, who by the way are neighbors to the farmers, set the stage for a wedge being driven into the community.  Sides were drawn up.  Does that sound familiar, folks?

Since then, millions upon millions, if not billions, of tax dollars have been thrown at the attempt to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and take care of chicken manure.  Oodles of programs have been created to assist farmers with taking care of the manure simply because the chicken industry repeatedly says that the farmers can’t afford it.  Overabundance of chicken manure is transported out of the area. Meanwhile, billion dollar chicken companies have sat back and taken a free ride, courtesy of taxpayers.

In come the threats and intimidation.  Chicken companies threaten to simply walk away.  We will move out of the State and go somewhere we can get away with polluting.  Thousands of jobs will be lost.  It’s the same old story of being held hostage by an industry that doesn’t believe in being a good corporate citizen and taking care of its industrial waste as any other industry has the responsibility of doing.

I see it as not being respectful and mindful of the communities and state the industry operates in.  They see it as more money in their pockets, a way of doing business.  We have been made to feel beholden to an industry that doesn’t give a hoot about anything other than dollars and cents.

In the volatile debate over the PLM Act in Maryland sides have been drawn up.  Departments within the State appear to be hostages to the chicken industry, once again, citing “the Eastern Shore’s chicken industry regarded as one of the most import aspects of the Shore’s economy”, according to The Star Democrat.

So okay, I’ll bite!  I’ll pretend that I believe that.  What I don’t understand is that millions of tax payer dollars are supporting programs to clean up chicken companies’ industrial waste.  Why are taxpayers footing the bill?

I’m a common sense kind of person however I just don’t get it.  Maybe someone can help me out!  On the one hand you have industry saying that farmers can’t afford to pay for disposing of chicken manure so we need to set up taxpaying programs.

On the other hand DPI, the chicken companies trade union, trots out farmers who say they and their workers are making a good living from the chickens they raise under contract with the companies.

Add the fact of State governmental agencies and a handful of lawmakers saying how important the industry is to the Eastern Shore economy, like the economy would collapse without the industry.  If there is all of this money floating around with contract farmers and within the industry, again, I ask, why are taxpayers footing the bill?

The surge of 200 new chicken houses planned for the Eastern Shore exacerbates the manure problem.  The new houses are much larger than what has been customary and can house up to 60,000 chickens apiece.  Warehouse sized buildings, to be exact.  Mostly, we’re not talking about the local farmer adding chicken houses to the farm we’re talking about investors with no ties to the community building chicken warehouse developments. (There are reasons but that’s a story for another day)

The industry has convinced government officials that “this doesn’t necessarily mean the industry is growing”, says Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary, Joe Barten-Felder.  I underline the word necessarily because, here it comes again folks – it’s all in the words!  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the industry is NOT growing, either!

Maintenance is also cited by government officials.  Simply put, more than anything it’s replacing old buildings or old facilities with new facilities. The chicken industry wants new, bigger, with all the bells and whistles chicken houses.  I wonder which one of you older existing contract farms will be the ones terminated to accommodate the NOT growing chicken industry?  Sounds to me like something has to go to make room for the new!

We currently have to transport manure out of the area because of the excess.  Does anyone think that 200 bigger houses equals more chickens equals more manure?  These chicken warehouse developments have no land to apply manure or produce any crops to take up the nutrients.  Like too much icing on a cake, the Eastern Shore can’t handle any more manure.

Quite frankly, I find it insulting that the chicken industry throws out vague statements and expects that we all buy it.

Everyone else in the State has to pay their way in the effort to clean up the Bay for through sewer taxes, the flush tax for septic systems, fees for the septic hauler who pumps and dumps human waste, environmental taxes, and on, and on, and on.  Adding insult to injury, we have tax dollars piled on to take care of chicken manure.

I see this whole scenario as communities being ripped apart over chicken manure and companies who want others to pay for cleaning it up.  If I haven’t given enough reason to support the Poultry Litter Management Act, I can give you more!

Poultry Litter Management Act Fact Sheet