Governor backs plans to aid poultry industry

He sees preserving land for agriculture as critical

December 23, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In a bid to help Maryland's poultry industry, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration said yesterday it will try to preserve land for agricultural uses and study alternative ways to dispose of chicken manure that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.

The announcement came as the governor endorsed many recommendations from a task force that spent six months looking for ways to ensure the economic stability of the Eastern Shore chicken business.

"The governor believes this is an industry that has been shut out for several years, and this is part of his effort to bring them back to the table," said Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "There are some issues that we can look at right away, and there are other issues that can be addressed in the long term."

Ehrlich appointed the nine-member Poultry Issues Action Team in June, shortly after Tyson Foods Inc. announced plans to close its Berlin plant and lay off 650 workers on the lower Eastern Shore.

Officials say the poultry industry -- largely concentrated on the Shore -- is the largest agricultural sector in the state, accounting for $600 million of Maryland's $1.6 billion in farm receipts and providing more than 15,000 jobs in the Delmarva area.

"The Tyson plant closing down was very regrettable, but it certainly served to wake everybody up and sober everybody up," said S. Patrick McMillan, the Department of Agriculture's assistant secretary for marketing, animal industries and consumer services. "It brought home the fact that you can't take the poultry industry for granted. We need a successful and profitable poultry industry for our state."

After meeting weekly since early July, the task force developed 16 recommendations, including expanded tax credits for farmers, upgrading an animal disease testing laboratory in Salisbury, promoting Maryland poultry here and overseas, and expanding economic development programs to include agriculture.

"We think the most critical recommendation is maintaining land for profitable farming," said Joe Chisholm, an Eastern Shore banker and chairman of the Poultry Issues Action Team. "What the industry needs to stay competitive are local sources of grain, and to do that we need to maintain land for farming."

Chisholm said the poultry industry has been forced to import grain in all but two years since 1980, and "when you bring in grain, it costs more."

The committee suggested that the state look at ways to reduce the cost of transporting grain to the Shore, as well as simply keeping more land in production.

Agriculture officials are working with other agencies to examine the state's land preservation programs, particularly those that may inadvertently take excessive amounts of cropland out of production without helping the environment, McMillan said.

"The program had been expanded to where the buffers were of such a magnitude that entire fields were being taken out of production," McMillan said.

Nutrient pollution

In addition to preserving cropland, the task force called for the administration to examine ideas for safely and cleanly disposing of an estimated 800 million pounds of chicken manure produced each year.

When excessive manure is used to fertilize fields, the runoff goes into the bay, where it's the leading cause of harmful nutrient pollution.

"We need to find alternate uses for the poultry manure, because it's a big environmental issue that the industry can't ignore," Chisholm said.

Among the committee's suggestions was using manure to generate electricity at the Eastern Shore Correctional Institute in Princess Anne. The concept of using poultry litter as a fuel was studied several years ago, and a British company considered building a manure-burning electrical plant. But the plan was abandoned because it would have required large state subsidies.

To avoid the outbreak of serious diseases among the chickens, the committee recommended that the state examine its testing lab in Salisbury.

"This lab helps to safeguard the poultry industry from the introduction and spread of serious avian diseases, and there's a recognition that we're working in a very old facility," McMillan said. "There haven't been any significant upgrades in years, and we're already in the early stages of seeing what we might do."

Although the task force also recommended tax breaks or other financial incentives -- particularly for young farmers looking to enter the industry -- Chisholm said the group recognized that the state budget problems will preclude such action for two to three years.

But the committee said that the Department of Business and Economic Development should make it easier for farmers to apply for revolving loans or secure lines of credit.

"We have already been able to identify one program at DBED that we think can help farmers, and we're working on the details," McMillan said.

Homegrown products

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