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Posts tagged ‘Delmarva Poultry Industry’

Why The Need For A Farmers Rights Act?

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.

I’ve Been Chastised!  Critics Want Answers

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

Residents Are Fed Up With CAFO Developments

On the Delmarva Peninsula the chicken industry has a presence that can be seen from major routes that visitor’s travel to visit our beaches. If one were to take a detour down any side road that presence would be highly notable. We are no longer talking about the occasional farm with a few chicken houses we are talking about huge developments of chicken houses. Thusly, what used to be farms are now classified as CAFO’s – concentrated animal feeding operations and called CAFO developments.

In today’s terms, the chicken houses are huge long buildings, 67 feet by 650 feet. That’s 43550 square feet of living space for chickens to be crammed into for six to seven weeks, 5 times per year. At best, the chickens are given three-quarters of a square foot to live on until they are sent to the processing plant. Using the figures above and giving the benefit of the doubt on exact living space per chicken, each building would house 58,000 chickens. Exact figures are hard to pin down. I’ve been told 3 different numbers the highest being 60,000 chickens.

Needless to say, there are a lot of chickens in one building, too many chickens that produce, roughly, 180,000 pounds of manure during the course of one 6-7 week period per house. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that cramming animals into a building with less than a square foot per animal and living on their own excrement for 6-7 weeks is going to brew undesirable and dangerous consequences.

The consequences are many. A constant diet of antibiotics/antimicrobials to counter diseases created by the model of cramming as many chickens into a given area comes to mind. So does ammonia emissions from the huge fans that exhaust bad air out of the buildings. Communication of disease to humans, such as avian influenza, is a scary one. Some have charged animal cruelty, environmental degradation, a huge contributor to the destruction of the Chesapeake Bay, loss of enjoyment of property and worthless property values. The list goes on……

A good example of CAFO development can be seen in Somerset County, MD where 6 residences sit right smack in the middle of 28 chicken houses. The CAFO development came long after the homes however the county never took into consideration the residents who would suffer the consequences. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is located 2 miles from the same CAFO development.

We’ve heard all of the excuses from the county and the state permitting this type of development. These excuses are the same that industry has hidden behind for years. Land zoned agriculture, Right to Farm, and county regulations for setbacks from roads and property lines. Who made up the planning, zoning, and regulations? The county and state with input from industry! Other input, if it was oppositional, went into the wastebasket!

With a burst of chicken house development suddenly occurring in the lower counties on the Delmarva Peninsula and some chicken companies offering incentives to build CAFO’s, residents are raising objections and well they should. What was once acceptable and allowed to run feral is now being resisted by local communities. In both Somerset and Worcester Counties in Maryland, residents affected from CAFO developments have raised objections and concerns to county officials. Well organized with legitimate and sound scientific concerns presented to the Somerset County, MD Planning Commission, residents have asked the county to revise CAFO regulations. Public Health concerns are at the top of the list of reasons for taking a look at permitted CAFO developments.

I’ve sat through some of these meetings and honestly have to say that it was akin to a dog and pony show on the part of the county. Other than a court room, I’ve never heard of a public meeting where the public wasn’t allowed to speak or ask questions. Furthermore, it is inherent that those making the decisions excuse their self from the process when a personal interest or conflict of interest would cloud their decision. Public servants have a duty to put personal gain and beliefs aside.

A moratorium on further building until regulations, considerations, and sound science can be looked at has been asked for and rejected. As the powers that be slowly draw out the process CAFO developments are advancing at a fast and furious pace.

From a moral standpoint and doing the right thing, industry should take into consideration those who are affected by its practices and not pay out cash to CAFO Developers that want to plow over anything and everything that is in their way!

Many Thanks and Some Thoughts

I’ve been overwhelmed this week with many heart felt comments and well wishes for the farm and my work. I have to admit that I’m stunned! All joking aside….. I sat here at my computer in amazement. I had no idea that so many people cared or recognized how horribly messed up our food production system is.

Food INC gave a glimpse into the food system that dominates our country and for my part I can say that I’m only one of thousands of farmers. Many of you have commented on the difference in my appearance or looks from Food INC to now. One commenter described me as looking haggard during my Food INC time and I have to agree. It’s a look and mental condition that I recognize well in the faces of my farmer friends who are stuck in the industrial system.

Taking that a step further…. I know so many who are stuck with no way out. They’ve been beaten down to the point of exhaustion. Many have lost the will to fight a power that is so great that there is no place that can’t be reached through wealth and influence. Facing complete financial ruin for one’s self and family is a powerful tool to ensure silence and compliance. I view myself as being blessed and lucky to have gotten out from under the thumb of corporate agriculture however I haven’t forgotten the many who haven’t. It will take a tidal wave of voices to free farmers from the restraints that bind them.

You are the people who will force change through spending hard earned food dollars in different ways and by electing officials who can’t be reached through wealth and influence. Other than the status quo!……….

The changes here on the farm have been dramatic and in my neck of the woods, the Delmarva Peninsula, our way of raising chickens is almost unheard of. A funny incident that happened a couple of months ago brings this point home – A man and woman were riding bicycles past the farm and I was out with the chickens. I could hear the woman shouting to the man “oh my God those chickens are out of the chicken house, they’re loose” and kept pointing and shouting! I had to holler back to assure her it was okay “they are free range chickens”.

Implementing a whole new way of farming and having the freedom to make all the decisions about how things are done is a refreshing and rewarding experience. Wanting to get out of bed and face the day on the farm is no longer a dreaded thing.

Having said that, I won’t gloss things over and say it’s easy. Along with the refreshing and rewarding – it’s hard work. I’m no longer just a farmer! I’ve learned about selling product; designing packaging and labeling; collecting, washing, and packing eggs according to food safety regulations (and learning the regulations); and coordinating deliveries and being the delivery driver…… the list goes on! These are things that independent farmers have to do.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have had excellent tech assistance through the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program. Having been audited and certified by a third party, AWA, other than knowing that we are raising our girls in the best welfare practices we can, benefits have been assistance in all of the things I mentioned above. Without AWA? I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

For those of you who’ve asked about where our eggs can be purchased. Bird’s Eye View Farm eggs are available at Whole Foods stores in Annapolis, MD , Harbor East and Mount Washington in Baltimore, MD. They are also available at Cowgirl Creamery in Washington DC, Arrowine, Westover Market, and European Foods in Arlington, VA. We don’t sell meat chickens.

Having so many wonderful people, most complete strangers to me, joining me in my great adventure is the best. Somehow, saying “thank you” to all of the kind words, thoughts, support, and wishes, seems lacking. But it’s all that I have….. Thank you!

Maryland Becomes First State to Ban Arsenic In Poultry Feed

Proponents and advocates of banning the use of arsenic in poultry feed in Maryland are celebrating a hard won victory. On May 22, 2012, Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley, signed into law, legislation banning arsenic in poultry feed. The bill goes into effect January 23, 2013. Maryland is the first state in the country to pass such a bill.

The legislation is a hard won victory for Environmental, Public Health, and Food Safety advocates and three long years of work is worth a celebration. Organizations such as Food and Water Watch, a Washington DC based non-profit appear to have their sights set on other states as well.

The use of arsenic in poultry feed has been a practice since the late 1940’s. Its use was intended for killing coccidiosis an intestinal parasite found in chickens. Referred to as “cocci” in the poultry industry the parasite reproduces in the intestinal tract of chickens and interrupts positive feed conversions raising the cost of production. Side benefits discovered by industry were faster weight gain (growth promoter) and added color. Arsenicals became more important for faster growth rather than killing intestinal parasites.

Mostly unknown to the outside world, arsenic is a routine feed additive for industrially produced chickens no matter if cocci is present or not or diagnosed by a veterinarian. Thinking back to my days of industrial chicken production there was a time when the higher ups of the company we contracted with told us we had a cocci problem. This went on for several months until we asked for a visit from the company vet. After having that visit and the company vet telling us we didn’t have a cocci problem feed conversion issues disappeared. Arsenic in the feed delivered by the company didn’t disappear as it continued to arrive in the company feed.

Banning the use of arsenic in poultry feed and specifically mentioning Roxarsone, is a great first step. I worry about this piece of legislation because there are ways around it. Loopholes!

Arsenicals are available in liquid form and can be delivered through the drinking water. Since the Maryland legislation specifies “feed”, industry in its infinite wisdom could use water administration of arsenic.

The legislation also specifies “commercial feed” and one wonders what the definition is for those words. Theoretically, there is no buying or selling of feed within the relationship between a poultry company and the farmers it contracts with. Although feed usage is used in the complicated formula administered by the company to pay farmers at the end of the flock there are no actual cash transactions when the company delivers feed to the farm. Technically, the company owns the feed.

Secondly, feed formulation is a “trade secret” and is proprietary information of the company. How will any government agency have authority to test feed ingredients? Claiming TOP SECRET will be a way out for poultry companies.

I have to applaud Maryland legislators in their efforts. However after the applause dies down, there are issues left in the dust.

I was particularly surprised with concerns listed over the use of arsenic and concerns excluded. The law specifies that it will be “abrogated and of no further force and effect if a specific arsenical additive receives approval by the US Food and Drug Administration if it includes evaluation of human food safety, impact on the environment, safety to animals, effectiveness of drug for its intended use, and chemistry and manufacturing procedures”.

Nowhere is there any mention of the effects on the farmers who are forced to be exposed to arsenic on a daily basis having no choice or say in what the company delivers to the farm. I gave testimony before the Maryland Senate committee hearing asking legislators to pass the bill for the sake of the farmer who has no choice in the matter. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that legislators are informed or had delved into the company/farmer contract relationship or how that system works.

The tangled web of how the poultry industry operates is nearly impossible to figure out unless one has operated within it. I look for future battles over the current law and judiciary proceedings over the loopholes that the Einstein’s within the poultry industry will use.

Independent Contractor – to be or not to be?

My last post about Waterkeeper Alliance vs. Perdue and Allen and Kristin Hudson brought out many issues associated with the case. The saga continues………..

The lawsuit is about pollutants finding their way to drainage ditches surrounding a chicken CAFO owned by the Hudson’s into a tributary of the Pocomoke River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. It also questions ownership and responsibility of the waste discharged from the farm naming Perdue as the legal owner of the chickens that produce the waste.

On November 17, 2011 both sides in the case filed a motion for summary judgment and in doing so many legal documents in the case were made available to the public. Public perusal of these court records brings to light many other issues.

It’s hard for me to decide which of the other issues to start with.

Independent contractor status is a good place to begin. Contract poultry growers (chicken farmers) are classified as independent contractors by the companies they contract with to raise company owned chickens. The job of the farmer is to receive company chickens and raise them to a marketable age – PERIOD.

Not to put the chicken before the egg we have to look at where these contract chickens originate. It’s a complex web to untangle and there are many company steps involved before ever getting to the chicks placed on farms and grown. What is known is that the company designs, through genetic selection and engineering, what the final chicken will be. When placed on contract farms, the farmer has no choice or idea about the genetics, performance in growing of the chicken, or how much manure that chicken will produce.

Prior to chicks being placed on contract farms feed is delivered to the farm. This feed is formulated, mixed and delivered by the company. Feed ingredients are unknown to the famer and are a closely guarded secret claimed by companies to be a “trade secret”. The amount of feed delivered to the farm is unverifiable by the farmer and (s)he has to accept on “good faith” that the feed is what the company says it is. There are no options for contract farmers to acquire feed from another source because the contracts stipulate that feed comes from the company. This feed delivery process continues throughout the entire life cycle of the flock.

I have to insert here a few facts about the feed. Most people don’t understand that feed ingredient’s such as antibiotics/antimicrobials and arsenic isn’t the farmer’s choice to use or not use. This pertains to animal by-products in feed as well. Everything that goes into feed is decided by the chicken company and must be accepted and used by the farmer. Should a farmer decide to acquire feed from another source the farmer’s contract will be terminated.

The chicks delivered to contract farms derive from company owned hatcheries where the eggs are hatched into chicks. During the process at the company hatchery certain procedures could be performed such as in ovo injections of vaccines and antibiotics. In ovo is a process of injecting eggs before hatching and it’s anyone’s guess as to what is injected. Another company secret of which the farmer has no control over!

It could be assumed that the independent contractor, the farmer, comes into play once the chicks are on the farm for growing. That theory might hold water if the company only delivered the chicks and disappeared out of the raising process and returned to pick up the grown chickens for processing.

Throughout the flock company employees routinely come to the farm and manage the methods in which the farmer is raising the chickens. Court documents in the lawsuit revealed a company employee went so far as to leaving written instructions saying “need to work on these things ASAP’ and then listing things to be done. Some “notes” left by Perdue gave deadlines on work to be done and many notes referred to telling the farmer to do “heavy culling” (kill many chickens). If that is not telling the farmer what work to do, I’m at a loss to say what it is!

Other notes revealed that a Perdue employee set or adjusted equipment within the chicken house, moved fans around, culled chickens, and preformed many other tasks required in raising the chickens to a marketable age. These things are the job of the independent contractor not a company employee.

Again, I have to stop here and raise a question. Suppose some disaster should occur inside the chicken house because of the Perdue employee making a mistake in equipment adjustments such as ventilation and all of the chickens die (smother) – who would be responsible for the disaster? It’s my guess the blame would be laid at the farmer’s feet and income loss would be the farmer’s bitter pill to swallow. Having been a contract farmer I say this with ease because everything is always the farmers fault according to the company and there is no recourse for the farmer.

Reading court documents revealed that Perdue routinely performed farm operations inside of the chicken houses. It’s argued that the Perdue employee and Mr. Hudson had an understanding about this. The only time that I’m aware of the company coming on the farm, performing the daily tasks of the farmer, and caring for the flock would be if the company declared that the farmer was not doing his job and that the company was taking over. There is a clause in the contract that says that the company has the right to do that. However there are no supporting documents that say that Perdue made any such declaration or decision to take over the raising of the chickens on the Hudson farm.

Farmers have argued for a very long time that they aren’t independent contractors in their relationship with chicken companies. Independentsomebody or something that is free from control, dependence, or interference. Looking over court documents it’s clear that Perdue has some other definition of “independent”.

I remember a time in the early 1990’s Perdue declared all of its chicken catchers to be independent contractors. In the late 1990’s a lawsuit was filed against the company claiming that the chicken catchers were employees of the company not independent contractors. The lawsuit prevailed and a Federal Court found in favor of the chicken catcher’s. If memory serves me correctly, the court found Perdue willful in dealings with the chicken catchers.

Might Perdue also be willful in dealings with contract farmers?

Relevant legal documents and court pleadings

Thrown to the Wolves!

Up until now I’ve refrained from commenting about a monumental lawsuit which has been brewing in my neck of the woods, the Delmarva Peninsula.  I’ve done so because I knew that despite public persona there would come a time when the little guy in the case would be offered up as the sacrificial lamb.

The lawsuit filed by attorneys for the Waterkeepers Alliance (plaintiffs) against co-defendants Perdue and Alan and Kristin Hudson (defendants) claims discharge of pollutants from the Hudson’s farm in violation of the Clean Water Act and that Perdue has legal responsibility for it.

Locally known as the “Hudson Lawsuit” the case has a lot of history and has turned neighbor against neighbor.  At the crux of the issue is that the Hudson’s raise chickens under contract for Perdue and do so accordingly to dictates by the company.  Since the farmer doesn’t own the chickens or the feed they eat its questionable as to who owns the manure (chicken poop).

In the beginning, claims by the Hudson’s and Perdue were that photographs of mountains of manure stored on the Hudson farm were piles of bio-solids (waste) from Ocean City, MD not chicken poop.  Regardless of what was in the photographs, at issue is that the farm, that houses Perdue’s chickens, is a point source of discharge of nitrogen, phosphorous, and ammonia as well as bacteria (fecal coliform and E Coli) which the Waterkeeper Alliance sampled at high levels downstream from the farm and also citing on-site and leaving the farm sampling conducted by the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE).  Plaintiffs say this “confirms the poultry house pollutants are reaching the facility’s drainage ditches.”

The drainage ditches on the farm drain into Franklin Branch a tributary of the Pocomoke River which drains into the Chesapeake Bay.  Nitrogen and phosphorous have been long standing culprits in the killing of the Chesapeake Bay and efforts to clean up the Bay and revive it to its natural state have failed miserably over the years at the cost of millions to taxpayers.

We have a volatile mixture of people involved and interested in the outcome of the lawsuit and this is where the story gets really good.  Earlier motions filed by Perdue attempted to have the company dismissed as a defendant in the case which was denied.  This puts Big Chicken into hot water because if found guilty a precedent will be set for the country where corporate ag is responsible for the manure their animals produce.  I say “their animals” because legally they own the chickens, not the farmer.

Backing up Big Chicken are the usual attendees such as the Delmarva Poultry Industry INC. (DPI) the local industry trade union, allied industries and Farm Bureau.

Farmers have been propaganda-ized to the point of fearing for their livelihoods and believe that the environmentalists want to put them out of business.

The environmentalists, taxpayers, and the local public have become the nemesis of the farming community and are accused of not getting how it all works.  Outsider’s is what they’ve been labeled.

Just recently Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, stepped outside the bounds of legal decorum weighing in on the case and in a letter asked attorney’s for the plaintiffs to drop the case.

If anyone is confused by now don’t feel bad, you’re not alone.  I specifically recall asking the question in 1995 – who owns the manure.  In all of the initiatives set out toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, no one, including our illustrious politicians, has answered that question in 16 years.  It’s come down to a lawsuit to determine the answer.

On November 17, 2011, court filings in U.S. District Court have asked for “summary judgment” in the case scheduled for a 3 week trial March 5, 2011.  Both sides presented arguments why the case should be resolved in their favor immediately.

This is where the story confirms my belief that the little guy (the farmer) would be thrown to the wolves.  Throughout the past couple of years Perdue and the camp followers have publically supported the Hudson’s, holding fund raisers for their legal defense fund and publishing a website in defense of the Hudson’s. Court documents recently filed cite internal Perdue email’s  – the Hudson Farm “is one of its 10 worst on the Eastern Shore of Maryland”.  This was based on an informal survey of Perdue farm managers.  I can only imagine what the farmer must think after staunchly defending Perdue.

Furthermore, in an effort to absolve the company from blame, Perdue legal arguments suggests ways that the judge could find the Hudson’s to be at fault for polluting – it was the Hudson’s cows that are the source of any pollutants.  I have to laugh because we have now moved from waste from Ocean City to waste from the cows.  In one deposition a suggestion is introduced that it was the wild geese.  Oh no folks, it can’t be from the chickens.

Perdue arguments also contend that Mr. Hudson “did not always follow Perdue’s advice”…  and “Mr. Hudson has not adopted various ‘best management practices,’ (such as hosing down the vents in a chicken house) recommended by Perdue.”

Could this be a case of “he who speaks with forked tongue”?  This is a perfect example of talking out of both sides of the mouth depending on who the target audience is at the moment.

I have to step up on my soap box…….  Big Chicken adamantly claims that they want to save farm families and then turn around and submit legal arguments to the contrary.  It reminds of little kids who get into trouble over something and they all claim “I didn’t do it” all the while coming up with some of the most ridiculous arguments as to why they shouldn’t be blamed and putting the blame off on another! PROPAGANDA – ized indeed!

Somewhere within the tangled web weaved practiced to deceive responsibility for pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from industry chicken poop will be decided.

I’ve spent countless hours reading over court documents.  Evasiveness and playing just plain dumb is the theme.  I especially loved reading some of the Perdue internal emails.  It’s quite obvious how the company big shots go about business.  One asks about farms that don’t have “curb appeal” meaning farms which don’t present a pretty picture.  Guess esthetically pleasing is now part of grower performance and whether the farmer has a contract to raise chickens for the company!

It’s my bet that the Hudson’s will not continue to contract with Perdue and more than likely any other chicken company on the Delmarva Peninsula.  It’s easy to sacrifice the little guy!

Relevant legal documents and court pleadings

Maryland Governor O’Malley Letter

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