Under a shadow

An outbreak of avian flu threatens the heard of Maryland's chicken country, where nearly everyone's livelihood is linked to poultry.

March 14, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

POCOMOKE CITY -- When signs were taped to storefronts this week imploring customers to wipe their feet, it was not shopkeepers fussing over muddy shoe prints. The customers were ordered to walk through heavy-duty disinfectant to kill avian influenza, the highly contagious virus that was found on a farm north of downtown a week ago. In just a few days, the town of about 4,000 people had already lost more than 300,000 chickens, some of its freedoms to work and move about and much of its sense of financial security.

Avian flu is generally found somewhere in the United States at all times and is not harmful to humans who touch or eat infected chicken. And, so far, just a small percentage of birds grown on the tri-state Delmarva Peninsula have been infected. But this outbreak on a farm in Worcester County is the first time the economically devastating respiratory virus has surfaced on a commercial farm in Maryland.

In chicken country, that means everyone follows biological safety rules such as cleaning one's shoes.

And Pocomoke is chicken country. Its address is the southern end of Maryland's Eastern Shore in one of the nation's biggest broiler-producing counties. Most everyone's incomes hinge on poultry in some way.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Business section Sunday incorrectly reported that the two commercial farms where avian flu began in Delaware last month supplied Perdue Farms Inc. The first supplied to live bird markets in New York; the second grows for Perdue.

"It doesn't matter if you have a restaurant business or you sell farm equipment, you depend on chickens," said Eddie Conaway, who sells John Deere tractors and accessories for Stevenson Equipment Co. "Everyone is taking this seriously."

Conaway and others said their customers are not leaving their farms if they can avoid it, even though no more cases have been found in testing on surrounding farms.

An annual auction that raises money for young farmers, an industry banquet and other meetings, and even bridge games, have been canceled to avoid spreading the flu via infected birds' manure on shoes or truck tires.

Rob Payne, general manager of Eastern Shore Poultry Services, said calls to build and service chicken houses have been put off. And farmers have sent their wives, sometimes in borrowed cars, to the store to buy items they cannot go without.

"One guy wanted me to meet him down the street with a part because he was too anxious to come in here," Payne said. "That's OK, I can work with them."

Everyone last week was talking about the bird flu even if they didn't live or work on a farm, and the local chamber of commerce business directory lists pages and pages of people who don't. The cashier at a local convenience store said business was already down, but the saleswomen at the dress shop downtown said sales have remained steady.

They all knew about new precautions that mostly involve quarantines and cleaning. And a lot of townspeople have added a personal measure.

They pray for healthy chickens.

Poultry began as an industry on the Delmarva Peninsula with a woman in Ocean View, Del., according to local lore. She and others in the 1920s raised chicks in their back yards, but one spring when she ordered a new flock, instead of a few came 500. She kept and raised them, selling them all at once when they reached fryer size for a nice profit. The next spring she ordered 1,000. Then 10,000.

Her neighbors, some of them watermen suffering hard times, saw the woman's good fortune and also took up growing chickens. On the plentiful rural acreage, corn and soybeans were planted to feed them. Feed mills and processing plants followed.

About the same time in Salisbury, 30 miles north of Pocomoke City, Arthur Perdue went into the egg farm business. Broilers, or chickens for eating, were added in the 1930s when Perdue passed the company to his son Frank -- who became well-known for his television commercials declaring, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." Today, a third generation runs the $2.7 billion company.

Delmarva now has four major processing companies with a dozen plants. About 2,500 farmers supplied them with 576 million broilers last year.

Just in Maryland, chickens account for a third of the agriculture industry and most of the grain crop is used to feed them.

An outbreak of avian flu on two commercial farms in Delaware last month, where chickens were grown for Perdue, first sparked the precautionary measures. But soon, the flu was discovered in live-bird markets in New Jersey and on a Pennsylvania farm. A Texas farm tested positive for a more virulent strain of avian flu.

The infected Maryland farm, which supplies chickens to Selbyville, Del.-based Mountaire Farms Inc., is more than 50 miles from where the disease was discovered in Delaware. Last week, the farm was marked off with police tape and guarded by two state police troopers. Men in white biohazard suits milled around the property.

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