Microbe vs. chicken little Smear: Chicken growers describe themselves as little guys who are being unfairly linked to a killer microbe.

September 17, 1997|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer D. Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

PRINCESS ANNE -- For Larry Porter, who quit his job as a bank manager to run Little Acorn Farm here, raising chickens for supermarket shelves was a way to keep his family rooted in the land.

But it's not a way to make money.

"As a former bank guy, no, I wouldn't consider myself a good investment," said Porter, 59, a deeply religious man who sometimes works 14 hours at a stretch with his chickens, his hay and his cattle.

For many of the estimated 6,000 poultry growers on the Delmarva Peninsula, chickens produce a relatively reliable, if modest, paycheck in a vocation given to boom and bust cycles.

But many of those same growers feel squeezed between the escalating costs of operations and the contract price the big poultry firms pay for raising birds.

Now these farmers also face another challenge: a single-celled creature, Pfiesteria piscicida -- the microbe suspected of maiming or killing fish in three Maryland waterways, and of making people sick as well.

Some scientists say that nutrient runoff, like that from chicken manure, seems to turn the normally placid microbe into a fish-eating predator.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has suggested he may propose mandatory controls on agricultural runoff. Many farmers say they're already complying voluntarily and worry that the cost of regulations will shave their already slim profit margins.

Some say it's unfair to blame them for pollution problems, because their contracts with the big poultry producers give growers little control over their operations.

"We're like sharecroppers," said Frank Morison of Pocomoke, who raises 54,000 chickens for one of the large poultry processors.

"They call us independent contractors, but they have absolute control over us. We're told what to do on a daily basis. How hot to keep the houses. How high to keep the feeders and the drinkers. When to move birds. What wattage light bulbs to use."

Porter said Little Acorn Farm's contract with Perdue allows him to "eke out a living." After 12 years, he isn't complaining.

Still, he worries about spending $12-$20 for a filter for a mask to wear in his dust-filled chicken houses. He frets about spending $150 to fix a device that injects medicine into the chickens' water line.

He and other growers count their profits in fractions of a penny per pound.

"This is why you can eat cheap chicken," said Elizabeth Butler, a poultry grower from Shelltown, as she watched a gang of workers catching chickens recently in one of her family's chicken houses.

Ammonia-scented dust and chicken feathers swirled in the dimly lighted shed. Eyes stung and throats burned. Catchers methodically snatched 5-pound chickens by the neck and stuffed them into five-tier steel cages. A low-slung orange forklift roared in, grabbed a cage and roared back out, like some hulking steel dinosaur.

Its tires dug tracks in the deep and pungent litter, which resembled coffee grounds. Outside, the forklift operator deftly stacked the cages on a flatbed hitched to a tractor-trailer.

Butler didn't bother to wear a mask. "My nose burned out long ago," she said.

The Butler family has been farming this land for five generations. But life on the farm has changed. "We have so many regulations now we can hardly come out of the house and farm," she said.

Several years ago, the Butler farm almost went under. Poultry helped save it.

"If it hadn't been for the chickens, there would be a lot fewer farmers farming," she said.

Like almost all the chicken growers, Butler, her husband and son work on contract for one of the big poultry processors. In their case, it's Mountaire Corp. of Selbyville, Del.

The Butlers have nine squat chicken houses -- windows covered with plastic -- at different locations. At any given time, they are raising about 110,000 chickens.

Each of their 500-foot-long houses shelters about 28,000 gabbling, squawking chickens jostling for their allotted three-quarters of a square foot of space, pecking feed from machine-filled pans, sipping water from the nipples on drip pipes.

Under the contract growing system, farmers provide the chicken houses, equipment and labor. The chickens belong to the poultry processor, which also provides the feed, the propane fuel for heaters and veterinary services.

Cornish game hens stay six weeks, broilers about seven and roasters nine to 10.

After a flock matures, the company pays the grower between 3 cents and 5 cents per pound for each live bird above a minimum weight.

The payment varies depending on how sparingly the grower used the processor's fuel and feed: the less used, the higher the payment.

For some growers who have just plunged into the business, said Morison of the grower's association, this can mean a profit of just $9,000 a year on an investment of $300,000 to build and equip the chicken houses.

Producers, meanwhile, say they aren't making a lot of money, either.

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