While Maryland's poultry business is a growth industry, it was the egg that came first


August 13, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

President Herbert Hoover may have promised a chicken in every pot, but it was Eastern Shore farmers who made it happen.

The roots of the modern poultry industry - by far the single largest sector of the state's agriculture industry - can be traced back to the early 1920s, a time when chicken was considered a luxury dish and pretty much limited to Sunday dinner for the rich.

As the story goes, a clerk at a chicken supply house mistakenly sent Cecile Steele of Ocean View, Del., 500 chicks for her egg hatchery, instead of the 50 she ordered. At that time, eggs were the prime cash crop in the region. Even Perdue Farms Inc., the giant Salisbury-based chicken processor, started out as an egg supplier.

Instead of sending the extra chicks back, Steele raised them for meat and sold them to a local buyer, who in turn found northern markets for them.

The success of this enterprise prompted other farmers throughout the Delmarva Peninsula to begin raising chickens for meat, according to a poultry industry study by the University of Maryland for the Maryland Agro-Ecology Center Inc.

By the mid-1930s, broiler production in the United States had increased to 34 million birds annually. The region comprising four counties on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore, two southern counties of Delaware and Virginia's Accomack County - accounted for about two-thirds of the total at that time.

The industry got a boost from World War II. Poultry, unlike red meat (beef, veal, pork and lamb) was not rationed during the war. As a result, production nearly tripled between 1940 and 1945.

After the war, chicken farmers benefited from technology advances in genetics, disease control, nutrition, and materials handling. The introduction of automatic feeding conveyers along with improved housing that allowed year-round production, cut labor costs, boosted output and put the chicken roasters within the reach of most family budgets.

"Poultry is still big business in Maryland," said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. "It's the No. 1 cash crop in the state. It accounts for 34 percent of our agriculture economy."

He added: "There are 2,600 chicken farms on Delmarva, and they produced about 570 million chickens last year. We say Delmarva because the industry doesn't know state lines. About half of the farms are in Maryland."

The industry's economic impact on the regional economy is huge. A Wicomico County economic development official once compared it to Disney World's financial contributions to Orlando, Fla., though environmentalists worry about the effect of chicken waste runoff on Maryland's waterways.

"It's the biggest [economic] factor in the agriculture economy," Riley said about the chicken business. "We tend to think only about the number of chickens, but the poultry industry uses about 80 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the state."

"If it wasn't here," Riley said of the poultry industry, "we wouldn't have much of a farm economy."

He said it would be "devastating" if for some reason all the chicken operations closed down. "It keeps the car dealers, the restaurants, the hardware stores and furniture stores in business."

Donald Bounds, owner of a 51-year-old Ford dealership in Pittsville, Wicomico County, said about 30 percent of his business comes from customers employed by the poultry industry.

Ken Bounds, no relation to Donald, is vice president of Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit based in Salisbury. The cooperative bank is the state's largest agriculture lender. He said a big portion of the bank's loans are to poultry producers, and he described them as "our best-quality loans."

He added: "These people are very consistent in their repayments. There are very few problems. There are very few loan delinquencies with poultry operations."

Ken Bounds attributes the bank's favorable loan business to the poultry industry's financial stability and the limited risk faced by farmers. "A typical farm with two chicken houses and average-to-better performance should net between $20,000 and $30,000 a year after they make their mortgage payments," he said.

A modern chicken house is 60 feet wide by 500 feet long and will hold about 30,000 birds.

It takes about seven weeks to grow a baby chick into an 8-pound roaster. A farm normally will handle five flocks of chickens a year.

"It's hard work, but it's not as hard as it used to be," said Sidney Richardson of Willard, a tiny Wicomico County town in the heart of chicken country. He raised his first flock when he graduated from high school in 1967.

"You don't have to spent 12 hours a day in the chicken houses any more," Richardson said. "We are more automated today. I might go out to the chickens for about an hour, three times a day."

He said he gets about 10 days off every eight weeks as a flock is sent to a processor and he waits for a new shipment of chicks to arrive. "It's like a vacation."

Richardson farms about 2,300 acres. Most of the land is planted in corn and soybeans, which are processed into chicken feed.

It's the chickens, he said, that pay the bills. "Chickens is what keeps us in business. I probably wouldn't be farming if we only grew grain. It's not that profitable."

"Chickens provide a stable income," Richardson said. "It's something you can depend on."

Other facts about the industry, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., an industry trade association:

Maryland is the 10th-largest broiler-producing state in the country.

Wicomico County is Maryland's leading chicken-producing county and the 18th-largest in the country.

Maryland farmers produced 256 million broilers last year, valued at $565.2 million.

Delmarva poultry processing companies employ 13,995 workers.

Delmarva poultry companies' payroll, excluding benefits, is $348.5 million.

Payments to farmers for growing the chickens totaled $165.4 million.

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