ANNAPOLIS – Maryland should declare a two-year moratorium on construction of new chicken growing facilities until poultry manure’s effect on water quality can be determined, a group of chicken growers, farmers and environmentalists said Wednesday.
The proposal, issued jointly by the Sierra Club, the Haztrak Coalition and the Maryland Conservation Council, follows a growing belief among environmental experts that farm runoff was a possible contributor to last summer’s Pfiesteria crisis.
A building moratorium would also help ease what the groups termed an exploitive relationship between poultry companies and farmers. Christine Johnson, owner of the Chesapeake Center Farm in Somerset County, said large companies “pit one chicken farmer against the other” in pursuit of ever more efficient growing facilities.
And with growing facility vacancy rates near 50 percent, said activist Mary P. Marsh, large poultry companies can easily pick the best place to grow their birds.
Typical arrangements between poultry farmers and the poultry business have the large companies, like Perdue Farms Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., providing the birds and feed, Johnson said. Farmers perform the labor, farm land and are stuck with the difficult task of manure disposal, she said.
A spokeswoman for Perdue Farms, one of the state’s largest poultry companies, refused to comment on its business practices with growers. Claudia Thayne characterized each contract with growers as unique.
The state Department of Agriculture tracks neither the total number of chicken growing facilities nor how many are under construction. Chris Bedford, an activist with the Maryland Conservation Council, said he didn’t know the totals either.
The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Pfiesteria Commission, responsible for formulating the state’s response to the crisis, was also criticized by the groups.
Jan Graham, chair of Haztrak, said the commission was “not open and inclusive,” but weighted heavily towards large agribusiness interests rather than those of common farmers.
But Ray Feldmann, deputy press secretary to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, rejected the idea that the commission represents only powerful business interests. The 10-person board, chaired by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, comprises current and former legislators, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, public health experts, and one current poultry feed farmer.
The groups also recommended that the state investigate:
* the link between pesticides and their effect on public health and the environment.
* aerial pesticide spraying and its impact on state waterways.
* reports of illegal sewage dumping on the Eastern Shore. What action the government takes in the end “will set a standard for the rest of the country,” said Edward S. Lee, a Worcester County chicken farmer. “We demand the governor listen … to the farmers.” -30-