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Farmers want ‘Big Chicken’ held responsible

Farmer David Smith said he signed the Environment Maryland petition because contract chicken growers on the Eastern Shore are treated unfairly by the large producers.

Farmer David Smith said he signed the Environment Maryland petition because contract chicken growers on the Eastern Shore are treated unfairly by the large producers.

Environmentalists and farmers want “Big Chicken” to pay.

Fifty-five farmers signed a petition sent to Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday, asking him to hold large poultry producers responsible for pollution from chicken houses seeping into the Chesapeake Bay.

The petition circulated by Environment Maryland says companies like Salisbury-based Perdue Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. keep their prices low and market share large by leaving the costs of cleaning up poultry industry pollution to taxpayers and individual farm owners paid to raise the chickens.

An O’Malley spokesman said large poultry companies could find themselves held responsible for some of the farm pollution when the state builds its comprehensive plan for dealing with runoff into the bay. The Environmental Protection Agency will finalize the plan later this year, laying out pollution limits for the bay’s watershed.

“I think there’s certainly a need from everybody in the industry and on the regulatory side to work together,” said Shaun Adamec, O’Malley’s press secretary. “It certainly doesn’t do anybody any good for poultry farmers to say we own the chickens, but not the manure they produce.”

Perdue and Tyson executives deflected the criticism in the petition, and touted their own environmental records.

“We’ve partnered with EPA through the historic Clean Waters Environmental Initiative to work with the farm families who grow our chickens to help ensure environmental compliance of their poultry operations,” said Steve Schwalb, Perdue’s vice president of environmental sustainability.

A Tyson spokeswoman called the petition “a cheap shot.”

“This group appears to be comprised of small organic farms that compete with Tyson and other larger companies to provide meat products to consumers,” said Libby Lawson.

David Smith raises cows, chickens, pigs and lambs in open fields rather than crowded barns on Springfield Farm in Sparks. He said he signed the petition because contract chicken growers on the Eastern Shore are treated unfairly by the large producers.

“I couldn’t possibly feed the masses where I’m operating, but there’s a middle ground to be found between the way I do it and the way the big integrators do it,” he said.

Maryland was the eighth-largest chicken producing state in 2008, with nearly 300 million birds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Delaware, part of which also falls in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, was ninth, with 243 million.

Thursday’s petition riled state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Middle Shore, who said it unfairly singled out the Eastern Shore and piles on to an industry already facing heavy regulation.

Environment Maryland, in its petition, argues 17 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorus polluting the bay comes from animal manure. But according to the EPA, just a small slice of that originates on the Eastern Shore.

In a draft of the pollution limits budget, the EPA allows 39 million pounds of nitrogen per year to come from Maryland, less than 20 percent of the total.

The Eastern Shore will be allotted about one-quarter of Maryland’s nitrogen pollution.

More than 75 percent of the nitrogen in the bay will come from Pennsylvania (76.8 million pounds) and Virginia (54.4 million pounds).

“Eventually, if you continue to vilify the Delmarva poultry industry, they’re going to move to areas that are more business friendly, like North Carolina and Virginia,” Colburn said. “The best play to reduce pollution is a comprehensive plan that works with the poultry industry.”

One comment

  1. Jennifer Kalmanson

    In addition to just having to take responsibility for their externalized costs of pollution, Big Chicken needs to also take responsibility for all the ways they push responsibility out of their ledgers: labor conditions of the farmers, quality of life for the chickens, and the impacts their contract-farms have on local communities (i.e., more money needs to stay in the farming communities to develop local resources such as school and public safety, with fewer profits going back to Big Chicken). Getting Big Chicken to own up to and pay for its environmental crimes is a good start, but it’s only a start.