"At first, both Jim and Frank were just ballistic; you couldn't talk to them," recalled Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore in Congress. Since then, Gilchrest said, "Jim has met with the experts, and I believe he understands that this [nutrient problem] is real, that we are going to have to deal with it, with the industry's cooperation or without it."
Gilchrest backs what is becoming a national movement to address widespread problems with runoff of farm fertilizers and animal wastes. He said he thinks the spotlight cast by Pfiesteria has "speeded up by at least two years" the move to control farm runoff.
Perdue said he is "not so concerned" about being able to better control nitrogen runoff, for which solutions are known. For example, planting winter cover crops can extract excess nitrogen from fields.
But the recently emerged problem of soils in poultry producing areas that have become overloaded with phosphorus may be much tougher, he acknowledged.
That could mean, scientists say, that in some areas virtually no poultry manure could be spread as fertilizer. It might have to be trucked to farms elsewhere, at considerable cost.
"If phosphorus is as big an issue as it is now made out to be, then we will just have to deal with it," Perdue said.
He added, "I am bothered that farmers may be condemned for overloading soils with phosphorus, because until now they have not even been told it was a problem."
But he held to the industry line that poultry manure, which contains large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, "is a resource for the farmer."
Asked whether a moratorium on more poultry houses might be advisable in some heavily fertilized river basins, he said, "I think you let the agricultural community figure that out."
However, he said, there are a number of relatively low-cost things poultry processors will try, such as adding enzymes to feed so chickens excrete less phosphorus; growing lower phosphorus corn for feed; and adding alum to chicken house litter to bind phosphorus so it doesn't run off.
Issue of 'biosecurity'
The cost of dealing with manure is one of two big concerns for the fiercely competitive poultry industry, said Perdue, whose own company lost an undisclosed amount of money last year, partly due to the high costs of grain for chicken feed.
The other, he said, is "biosecurity." With poultry packed so densely in modern chicken houses, diseases such as avian influenza can sweep through flocks. That is a problem in Pennsylvania.
Asked whether new restrictions on poultry manure and farm runoff on Delmarva would cause an industry exodus, Perdue said the number of chickens grown here has already been declining slightly for the past two years.
Before that, it grew at about half the rate of the industry nationally. He said he did not know if the decline was a trend.
The region still has many pluses for poultry growers, he acknowledged, including proximity to huge East Coast markets, "a lot of experience in growing and processing chickens the infrastructure, the financing."
On the minus side, he said, is the cost of grain, which increasingly has to be imported from the Midwest as more chickens are raised and as sprawl development gobbles up Eastern Shore land.
"Sixty percent of the cost of raising a chicken is feed, so it's harder to compete here now," he said. "For example, Perdue just expanded in Kentucky, because that's where the grain is.
"Leaving, if it happened, would be a gradual process one company sells to another, or a part of a company's operation folds up or moves; that's how it would happen."
He added: "Look, we all live here, farmers, Perdues who have been here nine generations. I go fishing on weekends in the bay with my son. It's our back yard. The last thing we want to do is create an environment our kids can't enjoy.
"If we have problems [with polluted runoff], then we need to deal with them, probably on a national basis.
"Ultimately, it will be the consumer that will decide whether it is worth the cost."
Pub Date: 10/20/97