SALISBURY - Declaring that the Maryland poultry industry's "time in the desert is over," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. introduced a task force yesterday that he said will help ensure economic stability for the Eastern Shore's chicken business.
Ehrlich, who campaigned last year promising to "give farmers a seat at the table" when decisions are made, vowed yesterday to cooperate with what he called mainstream environmental groups.
He acknowledged, however, that organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation were not included on the new task force and were not consulted about its makeup.
Farmers, political leaders and industry officials, including Perdue Farms Inc. chief Jim Perdue and representatives of three other poultry giants, met privately with Ehrlich yesterday before the six-member task force was announced.
"Farmers are true environmentalists," Ehrlich said.
"That might be an inconvenient truth for some, but it's the truth. The era of balance and listening to all sides has returned in this state."
Ehrlich said the panel would assess economic factors threatening the poultry industry - including declining overseas markets and consolidations that have prompted recent plant closures in three states - and develop recommendations he will push in the legislature next year.
Another change is to come with a memorandum of understanding spelling out how the poultry companies will aid in the disposal of excess manure generated each year by more than 500 million chickens.
Perdue said the industry hopes for an agreement similar to one in Delaware.
The industry, he said, would take a leading role in seeking new markets for chicken manure, such as farms in the Midwest, and help pay for research aimed at reducing runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. They are the main pollutants blamed for damaging the Chesapeake Bay.
Many in the industry are still buzzing about the administration's recent decision not to try to force the poultry companies to share responsibility with contract growers for disposing of an estimated 800 million pounds of chicken manure a year.
But that issue, perhaps the most contentious in eight years of aggressive environmental regulation by the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, did not prompt creation of the task force, Ehrlich said.
He said state agriculture officials began organizing the effort two months ago when Tyson Foods Inc. moved to close its aging Berlin plant near Ocean City. The planned closure, which will lay off 650 workers in the job-starved Lower Eastern Shore, jolted industry leaders, farmers and local elected officials.
"What people need to realize is that the poultry industry is totally integrated in the fabric of the Shore and its economy," said John "Sonny" Bloxom, a Worcester County commissioner. "If these companies start moving out, it could create ghost towns in this area."
The task force includes industry leaders such as Douglas W. Green, a Somerset County poultry grower who is president of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the main trade organization, and Worcester County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, also a grower.
"We need to balance environmental concerns with profit," said Pocomoke banker Joe Chisholm, who is chairman of the panel.
Environmental activists said they agree that the industry needs an economic boost, but that any growth strategies should include environmental safeguards.
"We've been extremely supportive of looking at ... ways to improve the economics of farming," said Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
She said she was not disappointed that Ehrlich excluded environmentalists from the panel. "I don't think it's absolutely necessary that we're at the table when those kinds of issues are discussed," she said.
But others said they see Ehrlich stepping back from previous environmental advances. They noted the administration decisions to fire two officials in the state's Smart Growth office and to stop trying to force poultry processors to share responsibility for disposing of chicken manure.
"How are we going to be maintaining our environment if we're letting employees go and cutting back on Smart Growth and easing rules for the poultry industry?" said Susan C. Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "The poultry industry has been let off the hook."