A race for new contracts

But the bad news for farmers is that Perdue isn't positioning itself to produce more chickens: It's looking for ways to make more money from the 635 million per year that it's processing now.

"One of the factors that hurt Allen is the oversupply in the industry," said Joe Forsthoffer, a Perdue spokesman. "So we obviously want to be careful to match supply and demand."

Mountaire needs more farmers to meet its expansion goals, though not nearly as many as Allen used. Arkansas-based Tyson says it doesn't have an immediate need in the area. Amick, a South Carolina company that got a toehold in the region when it bought facilities from Allen last year, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Rhodes, who raises chickens for Allen, said some of the company's farmers have landed with other integrators and some are on waiting lists.

But she said no company appears to be interested in picking up farmers northwest of Route 301 — in Queen Anne's and Kent counties — because of the distance from their feed mills. She is one of about 30 Allen growers there.

Because she's also an agricultural agent with the University of Maryland Extension, Rhodes has heard from many worried farmers. She suggests they call their lenders for advice as well as every government official in a position to help — just as she has.

"I don't ever want to say we just rolled over and did nothing," Rhodes said.

It's an anxious time for farmers with other companies, too. They figure the integrators might decide to drop some of them to pick up Allen's most successful growers, a miserable game of musical contracts.

"Right now, I'm doing really well with Perdue," said Richardson, the Willards farmer. "Two years ago, I was doing bad. If I was in that position, I'd be really worried."

Lemmie Swann, a longtime grain and chicken farmer in Talbot County, said poultry houses are so sophisticated these days — with computers that control the temperature and feed the animals — that they cost more than some houses for people.

It's up to the farmers to retrofit when companies demand it. Swann said Allen farmers might have to pour more money into their buildings to get a new contract.

"Our serviceman from Perdue said their phone has been ringing off the hook because people have been calling, wanting to get on with them," he said. "But their houses don't meet Perdue specs."

Even for the in-demand grain farmers, upheaval in the poultry industry is unsettling. The integrators have long bought almost everything they produce to feed chickens in the region. Farmers don't want that customer base to vanish.

The same goes for suppliers, Chad Nagel said. His family's company — Nagel Farm Service — buys grain from farmers, stores it and sells it to companies throughout the year.

The Preston-based grain dealer has been doing business with Allen for three generations. Now it is one of the many creditors in Allen's bankruptcy case.

Nagel has watched the upward march of grain prices on the screen mounted in his office and worried about the consequences.

"It speaks to our way of life," Nagel said. "It's one thing that's allowed the U.S. to enjoy a standard of living above most of the rest of the world — we've got extra money to spend on Friday with our paycheck because a small portion goes to the grocery store. … It's a concern when you see a vital part of that formula take a hit."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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