Delmarva poultry companies, in conjunction with the state Department of Agriculture, are taking steps to prevent an epidemic of dangerous bird flu and to ensure the safety of chickens sold in grocery stores.
The Department of Agriculture announced last week the formation of a plan involving the testing of all commercial poultry flocks for avian influenza before the birds go to market. The plan is expected to be fully implemented by the end of the month.
Currently, only 40 percent of the flocks are tested in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, the three states that make up one of the largest poultry-producing regions in the country.
"We want to make double sure that we have a safe product and the public knows we have a safe product," said Lewis R. Riley, Maryland's agriculture secretary.
"Maryland poultry farmers are among the most vigilant in the nation in implementing biosecurity measures to protect both animal and human health," said Riley.
He said that H5N1, a highly pathogenic form of avian flu that has killed more than 70 people in Eastern Asia and most recently was blamed for two deaths in Turkey, hasn't been found in the United States.
"With 100 percent testing, we are able to ensure that if we ever were to experience any avian flu on Delmarva, we could quickly contain and eradicate the disease," Riley said.
He said that while some of the chickens sold at grocery stores in Maryland come from other states, the bulk of it comes from the Delmarva region.
He said the steps being taken here are part of a nationwide program established by the Washington-based National Chicken Council. The cost of testing is paid by the poultry processing companies.
Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the council, said the testing program in the Delmarva region, like that in other poultry-producing areas of the country, involves taking samples from 11 birds in each flock of chickens.
He said the flu is highly contagious and that if there were an outbreak, it would spread so fast that the 11 tests would result in a 95 percent probability of it being detected.
If a lethal strain of the virus is detected in a flock of chickens, Lobb said the flock would be destroyed on the farm and all flocks within two miles would be quarantined and tested weekly.
Riley said that Delmarva poultry would be one of the first poultry-producing regions in the country to go to 100 percent testing.
Daniel Bautista, director of the Department of Agriculture's animal health laboratory in Salisbury, said Maryland coordinated its program with Delaware and Virginia because the industry is spread over sections of all three states.
"The birds cross state lines every day," Bautista said. "Birds grown in Laurel, Del., are processed in Salisbury. Birds grown in Maryland may be processed here or in Delaware or Virginia."
Riley said, "We are taking steps to keep our chickens safe for consumers and to protect a big part of our agriculture economy."
There are about 1,200 chicken farms in Maryland, and sales throughout Delmarva totaled about $1.5 billion last year.
It's time for farmers to ponder their planting decisions and cast an eye to Annapolis to see how new laws might affect their operations.
"There are going to be a lot of farm issues in the legislature this year," said Riley. "But the budget is the big issue."
He said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed major funding increases for agricultural land preservation and for cover crops to be used by farmers to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
"Eminent domain is going to be a major issue that farmers will be watching," said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, a trade association representing about 25,000 farm families.
Connelly was referring to legislation that will seek a constitutional amendment to prevent counties, cities and towns from seizing private property through their powers of eminent domain for the benefit of private redevelopment projects.
The bill will seek to offset a controversial Supreme Court decision last summer that allowed such taking of property.
"This is a primary concern among farmers," said Connelly. "Farms have a low tax base, and there is a fear among farmers that their land would be taken for redevelopment."
She said the bureau would be watching this bill "to make sure our farms are protected."
Riley said that $84 million is being designated for farmland preservation in the governor's proposed budget. "This is a shot in the arm for ag land preservation," he said, noting that the current budget contains $29 million.
Riley said the governor has proposed nearly doubling the amount of money going to farmers to pay for growing cover crops during fiscal 2007, which begins July 1.
"We had $5.4 million for cover crops this year," Riley said. "Next year's budget includes about $9 million."
Cover crops are grain, usually wheat or barley, which is planted after the corn and soybeans have been harvested. The cover crops grow over the winter and help absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from the ground before they leak into waterways flowing into the bay.
The state is looking at $1.4 million to help pay the cost of transporting chicken manure from farms on the Eastern Shore to other parts of Maryland, or to other states, where it can be used as fertilizer. There was $600,000 in the current budget for this program.
Maryland dairy farmers are asking the Assembly to codify their newly formed Milk Advisory Board.
"That makes it a part of the state law and gives it a lot more strength," said Riley. "It will give the group more clout when dealing with the legislature."
The council was established in December.