Farms cost study sought

House leader questions economic conditions of contract growers

Big agriculture at issue

Letter to Glendening follows chronicle of plight of family farms

April 13, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Saying he is concerned about the effects of big agricultural corporations on the state's family farmers, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening to study the economic conditions for farmers in Maryland who raise hogs and poultry for large companies.

Taylor's request followed a three-part series in The Sun that chronicled the plight of the nation's contract chicken farmers, who increasingly find themselves deep in debt, their fortunes dependent on a group of large, powerful poultry companies that set the pay and the rules.

In a letter to Glendening, Taylor wrote that the series and recent controversies about large hog farms in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, have "prompted me to believe that Maryland needs to be concerned about the economic future of our family farms."

"As you know, many of these farms have not fared well in recent years," he wrote.

Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat, said in an interview that he was particularly concerned about a number of large-scale contract hog operations opening as farmers struggle to make ends meet. Dairy farmers have hit hard times recently as well.

Last month, the Frederick County Commission, concerned about pollution, passed the state's first moratorium on large hog-raising feedlots, about nine months after Rodney Harbaugh opened a 4,000-animal farm in Rocky Ridge. State officials say Harbaugh's is the largest hog farm in Maryland.

But the controversy over agricultural's concentration in the hands of powerful corporations has many sides. Some farmers say participating in the contract agricultural system is the only way they can keep farming.

Taylor wrote to Glendening that while he was concerned about the environmental problems caused by large factory-style farms, he wanted to know the effects on farmers, too.

He asked that the state hire an independent economic association to determine prices farmers were receiving for livestock production; how many small family farms in Maryland have been sold "for lack of income or bankruptcy" over the past decade; and how the cost of borrowing for contract farming compares with other types of loans.

A new chicken farmer today can expect an annual net income of $8,160 -- about half the poverty level for a family of four -- until he has paid off a 15-year loan on his poultry houses. In a recent survey of Delmarva's growers, fewer than half said their paychecks for poultry covered the expense of running a chicken farm.

Glendening press secretary Ray Feldmann would not discuss what the governor's response might be, saying yesterday that Glendening was "carefully reviewing" the letter. "Obviously he's very much aware of these issues," Feldmann said.

Spurred by the series and by the controversy over hog farms, other lawmakers also have become interested in the problems of contract agriculture.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and four other members of Congress toured a Parsonsburg chicken farm last month and heard from farmers, poultry plant workers and environmentalists about the grip poultry companies have over their livelihoods on the Eastern Shore.

The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards division, which regulates the chicken industry's relationship with its growers, has asked for legal authority and money to pursue poultry investigations administratively, the way it may go after abuses of small farmers in the beef, lamb and pork industries. Gilchrest has said he will support that effort.

Taylor said that while he asked for the study, the solutions to the problems family farmers face in today's agricultural economy are more likely to be solved by efforts across the country.

"It's a national issue that ought to be solved nationally," he said.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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