A little egg on face for House speaker

Reversal: Casper R. Taylor Jr. apologizes to the poultry industry for having backed a study to determine if large producers exploit their contract farmers.

April 22, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In an unusual about-face, Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has rescinded a letter he sent last month asking Gov. Parris N. Glendening to study the economic conditions of contract poultry farmers, and apologized to the state's poultry industry for his "misdirected" message.

Taylor wrote in a second letter to the governor that he didn't mean to ask for an assessment of the economic conditions for contract poultry farmers at all -- just one for hog farmers in Western Maryland.

He also told Glendening that regulations proposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment on poultry processors -- making them responsible for the litter generated by their contract growers -- "may not be a sound public policy."

Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat who has nursed ambitions for statewide office, said in an interview that the first letter was drafted by an aide while he was busy with the legislative session, and that he didn't read it carefully enough.

"I'm correcting myself," he said. "I signed a letter I didn't pay enough attention to."

Taylor said several legislators spoke to him after seeing a newspaper article about his request for the study. So did lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, who represents the trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry.

"They just called it to my attention, which made me focus on it," Taylor said. "Nobody was angry."

But several legislators and industry representatives said yesterday that they had made their displeasure about the first letter known.

"I'm glad he changed his stance," said state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset and Wicomico Republican who frequently defends the industry. "I don't think most people understand the economic engine that the poultry industry is down here, and how beleaguered the poultry industry is right now. I think Cas' second position is the right one."

Del. Ron Guns, a Cecil County Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, said he spoke to Del. Norman H. Conway, whose Wicomico County district sits in the heart of Eastern Shore poultry country, about the first Taylor letter.

Conway, Guns said, replied that Taylor would be coming out with a second letter to the governor. The copies of the second letter were sent to both delegates.

Conway did not return a telephone call yesterday.

Guns was concerned about Taylor's request for the study, fearing it and the recent proposed environmental regulations could inject too much government into the state's powerful industry.

"It was so out of character for Cas, because he usually strives for balance," Guns said yesterday. "He recognizes how devastating the loss of a large industry can be."

Taylor sent the first letter to Glendening on March 18 after an hourlong meeting with the president and legislative chairwoman of the Maryland Sierra Club, who urged him to ask for studies of the economic conditions for both hog and poultry farmers who contract with large corporations.

Taylor's reversal on the poultry issue "really, really does surprise me," said Mary Marsh, the club's legislative chairwoman. "Previously I had always thought of him as a man of character, and I have real questions of my judgment right now."

The March 18 letter mentioned a three-part series of articles in The Sun that examined the plight of contract farmers whose fortunes are controlled by a dwindling number of large poultry companies.

The series included the complaints of several Maryland farmers who said they were struggling to make ends meet. In a recent University of Delaware survey, half of the Delmarva growers who responded said their poultry earnings did not cover their expenses.

But Taylor said this week that none of the farmers had complained to him. "I have had complaints about the hog industry," he said.

Marsh said the Sierra Club, which focuses on environmental issues, wanted the study because if Maryland family farmers struggle or go under because of corporate consolidation, their land could become available for development.

"If farmers don't make a reasonable living all these farms will be subdivisions," said Chris Bedford, president of the Maryland Sierra Club. "[If contract farming] is the best thing since sliced bread for farmers," Bedford said, then the industry ought to welcome a study.

Kenneth M. Bounds, president of Delmarva Poultry Industry, said he also welcomed an inquiry so long as it was independent and measured poultry against other types of agriculture.

Bounds says he's been trying to arrange such a study with the University of Maryland.

He objected to the "tone" of Taylor's first letter. "I remember the tone as sort of being accusatory, implying that vertical integration has hurt family farms," he said. "It's the only thing that has saved the poultry industry."

Taylor's second letter, dated April 13, also criticized a plan by the Maryland Department of the Environment to seek new regulations that would hold poultry companies responsible for the waste produced by their birds.

Responsibility for chicken manure typically is left to the growers who raise poultry -- even though the growers do not own the chickens.

Maryland would be one of the first in the country to make the companies responsible, and poultry executives have threatened to move out of Maryland if such a requirement was imposed.

In the letter, Taylor praised the industry's efforts to cooperate with the state to reduce the effects of polluted runoff. But he said the state environmental agency may be "overreaching" in its latest effort.

"To require poultry processors to police farmers over whom they have no legal authority could create an untenable situation," the speaker wrote.

Joseph C. Bryce, Glendening's chief legislative officer, said the governor has not responded to either letter.

"We've had the Department of Agriculture looking at how to respond to the letter," he said. "I guess we'll just regroup and have them look at the second."

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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