Issue of agricultural runoff isn't going away, Perdue says CEO offers assurance that poultry industry will respond to it

October 20, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Even if Pfiesteria were to disappear from Chesapeake Bay tributaries, the larger environmental issue of agricultural runoff to the bay is not going away, says James Perdue, head of the nation's second largest poultry producer, Perdue Farms.

His comments came during a recent 1 1/2 -hour interview at the Salisbury-based company founded by his grandfather, Arthur, and made prominent by his father, Frank, who still owns most of the privately held company.

Perdue, 47, talked about concerns that the toxic microorganism, Pfiesteria piscicida, is linked to excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus entering rivers in fertilizers, including poultry manure.

Such nutrient-laden runoff has long been documented as a cause of other bay problems, such as low oxygen and disappearance of sea grasses.

"Pfiesteria, I think, could be gone one of these days, but we're still going to be left having to deal with these nutrients," he said, adding: "We realize that, and this industry will respond."

Perdue would not commit to taking direct responsibility for poultry manure -- which all processors leave to the farmers who grow their chickens, to use as fertilizer.

But he took a conciliatory tone about renewed efforts to develop national water quality standards for nutrient runoff, an issue largely unaddressed by state and federal clean water laws.

"I feel good about a level playing field," he said.

And he played down the chances of any major pullout by Perdue, even if Maryland were to adopt stricter standards for agricultural pollution than other states. "It would depend on how much stricter," he said.

Perdue took pains to say he is no expert on the Pfiesteria that has killed fish, sickened humans and closed waterways, but he does bring to the issue a background unusual among his industry.

Rather than join the family business after graduating from Wake Forest in the 1970s, he spent several years earning a doctorate in fisheries biology from the University of Washington.

There he specialized in what is also one of the Chesapeake Bay's major environmental issues, studying how to breed resistance into diseased oysters (different oysters and different diseases than here, he pointed out).

If his decision to return to Perdue Farms in 1983 was a joy to his father, it was a blow to the oyster growers who have created a major aquaculture industry in the Pacific Northwest.

"Jim was one of the brightest boys to come out of the university," said Lee Wiegardt, who might loosely be called the Frank Perdue of shellfish in Washington state.

"I followed his papers, and I think he could have been one of the great ones, and contributed a lot to our industry," Wiegardt said in an interview a few years ago.

Perdue, told that, laughed and said, "I'm not sure I was that good a scientist, but I did enjoy it."

Nonetheless, he said it was not a wrenching decision to return home. "Dad had always kept me up to date on the business, but he never told me to come back. He truly believes you have to enjoy what you're doing or you won't do it well.

"I needed to get some victories of my own under my belt and I did," he said. Upon returning, he spent the next eight years working his way up in the family business from management trainee to chief executive officer in 1991. In the process, he acquired an MBA from the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury State University.

'Confidence in the science'

On Pfiesteria, he says he has "tremendous confidence in the science" to sort out any links to agriculture and poultry.

Perdue says he looks for guidance in the decline and comeback of rockfish in the bay between the 1970s and 1990s:

"There were people warning the decline was caused by all sorts of things, ranging from PCBs to acid rain to pesticides. The answer, when we followed the science, was that it was overfishing; and once that was stopped, the rock came back.

"The science with Pfiesteria is still catching up; [meanwhile] you can't make a quick decision on the fate of agriculture based on Pfiesteria."

On Friday, a Maryland commission investigating Pfiesteria heard consensus from nine prominent scientists that reducing nutrients "will likely" lower risks of future outbreaks, though important links between nutrients and Pfiesteria need more research.

Perdue, who said repeatedly in the interview that he is convinced "this industry will respond" to problems shown to be caused by nutrient-laden runoff, acknowledged that he has "learned more than I ever wanted to know about nitrogen and phosphorus in the last month."

Indeed, as recently as August, when Pfiesteria outbreaks had just occurred in the Pocomoke River, Perdue (along with many others in the poultry industry) was privately taking a harder, more defensive line.

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