The chicken industry is booming on the Eastern Shore, with new — and larger — chicken houses being built on a larger scale, causing farmers to face not-in-my-backyard activism. (Baltimore Sun video)
When Sam Berley and his wife bought their green-roofed cottage two decades ago, a few wooden chicken houses sat beyond the field next door. The occasional squawking hen or whiff of chicken litter was customary in a part of the state where poultry have long outnumbered people.
The field has since changed hands, though. The Berleys' new neighbor is what many consider the chicken farm of the future — a megafarm of 300,000 birds housed in six metal sheds, each one 60 feet wide and as long as 11/2 football fields.
Fans blow enough of a stench from the chicken houses toward Sam Berley's yard that he, his wife and two teenage children can sometimes smell it inside their home even with the windows closed.
"The way it was done years ago is much less harmful," Berley said. "I realize we've got to raise bigger flocks of chickens, but we need to keep those bigger flocks away from … where people live."
Hulking chicken warehouses are sprouting up by the dozens across the Eastern Shore, replacing farms too small or too old to turn a profit because of costly environmental regulations and consumer demand for antibiotic-free and organic chicken. The new houses economically hold more chickens, while also giving them more space.
Though the chicken business is the foundation of the local rural economy, it now finds itself in conflict with neighbors who are used to a more pastoral setting — and who have begun calling for the growth to slow.
"These are not family farms. They are industrial scale," said Lisa Inzerillo, a Princess Anne resident who has been leading the push against the poultry industry. She counts more than 50 large chicken houses within two miles of her home, including six that recently started operating just a quarter-mile away.
Elected officials being pulled into the dispute are considering new requirements for chicken farmers to build farther from homes or to plant trees to hide their buildings. But some residents want more aggressive rules, if not an outright moratorium on chicken farm construction. State officials say they are reviewing more than 50 applications for new or expanded chicken operations throughout Maryland, mostly on the Eastern Shore.
Farmers, meanwhile, defend an industry that has been an profitable enterprise for generations, though they acknowledge raising chickens has changed dramatically. Higher up-front costs mean it's necessary to build bigger, more efficient facilities, they say.
The operation next to the Berleys' house is chicken grower Minh Vinh's second on the Lower Shore, giving him an inventory of as many as 718,000 chickens at any given time. While Vinh said he is trying to be a good neighbor, his focus is on supporting his family of six and his six employees.
"Sometimes I do feel for Mr. Sam — it's not that great to live next to this chicken farm," Vinh said. "But at the same time, it's an opportunity for me. … It's farmland, and poultry is farming."
An evolving industry
The chicken industry is the heavyweight of Maryland agriculture. The 300 million chickens produced in the state rank ninth nationally, and the nearly $1 billion in sales they account for makes up 41 percent of Maryland farm cash receipts.
On top of that, much of the nearly $300 million in corn sold here is linked to chicken farming, as feed. The chicken business is credited with employing about 7,000 people in the state.
The industry's profile is changing. For decades, it was seen as a side business for farmers looking to diversify their income. They would add a chicken house or two, maybe 40 feet wide and 400 feet long, but continue growing crops such as corn and soybeans.
That is no longer a viable business model for many farmers.
Rising construction and engineering costs to comply with environmental regulations have squeezed profit margins enough that farmers say they can't make a living from small chicken-growing operations. They can't pack in as many chickens if they decide not to use antibiotics or to grow organic chickens, as consumers are increasingly demanding. And companies like Perdue and Tyson that buy their chickens won't pay them as much if they aren't efficient.
Large operations make more economic sense because they spread the costs over a broader footprint. Even a small new chicken farm can cost millions of dollars, including acquiring land and paying for engineering and construction. Having more birds means more income to recoup that investment.
"It's not our grandfather's type of agriculture," said Lee Richardson, who operates six chicken houses together holding 175,000 birds. "It's a lot of regulations that have caused us to get bigger."
Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Salisbury-based Perdue, agreed that the new houses are more economical. Despite the concerns of some residents, she said that the company is not trying to raise more chickens in Maryland, just raise them more efficiently.
It's not clear if construction of big new chicken houses means more chickens are being raised in Maryland, but industry and state officials — and concerned environmentalists — all agree a building boom is obviously underway.
More than 230 chicken houses are being planned or are under construction in Maryland, according to the state Department of the Environment. That comes in addition to more than 200 chicken houses recently permitted across the Delmarva peninsula, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
The industry's local trade group says that doesn't mean more flocks are being raised. The total number of chicken houses on the Delmarva has fluctuated over the past decade, said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group. As the new operations spring up, some older chicken farms are shutting down, he said.
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder said that while some projects have raised concerns because of their size, he doesn't see a problem that state officials need to address. He said zoning issues should be left to local governments.
"It's a big part of agriculture here in the state, and it's absolutely vital to the economy on the Shore," he said.
David Mister, Eastern Shore coordinator for the state Agriculture Department's Office of Resource Conservation, told a recent gathering of concerned Wicomico County that the new farms are a positive development.
"The industry is growing, and that's a good thing," he said.
Inzerillo, who lives on a property her family has owned since 1875, doesn't see it that way. She and many other Shore residents are raising concerns about the consequences megafarms might have for their drinking water and health.
"Anytime it's still out or it's cloudy, it's just a layer of stench," she said of the odor from a farm that began operating this winter across the street. She fears that with the stench come toxic levels of ammonia and harmful manure particles.
In the Salisbury area, residents have expressed concern that chicken waste from several large operations recently built, under construction or in planning could leach into a key aquifer for the region. They also worry that toxic fumes from chicken waste are fouling their air.
More than 500 people attended a meeting called by Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver last month to discuss those issues. State environmental and agriculture officials told the crowd there was no evidence to suggest residents' health was at risk. If farmers follow the guidelines of their permits, there should be no chicken litter making its way into streams, rivers or the bay, said Gary Kelman, who oversees large livestock operations for the state Department of the Environment.
But that didn't satisfy the most ardent of opponents of the chicken farms. Gabby Cammarata, a Salisbury resident who said she recently hand-delivered 200 letters to notify her neighbors of a planned megafarm, said she found the information biased. Opposition to the farms is undaunted, she said.
Cammarata and others have pressed elected officials around the region to improve public notification about planned megafarms and to adopt ordinances protecting public health. Though some new policies are being considered, none have been adopted.
"They think if they do nothing, we'll eventually go away," Cammarata said.
Somerset County's planning commission has recommended requiring public hearings on proposed farms with at least 200,000 square feet of chicken house space, plus larger setbacks from residential property. Though it passed the matter on to the county Board of Commissioners, that body has not acted.
Charles F. Fisher, vice president of the board, said the commissioners are considering the recommendations, but "we haven't made any commitment." He declined to comment further.
In Wicomico, the County Council is discussing possible remedies, including bigger setbacks and tree buffers next to residential land, but not any more significant changes to zoning ordinances, council President John T. Cannon said. "Right to farm" ordinances protect agriculture by providing defense against claims they are a public nuisance, he said.
While officials acknowledged the many concerns they have heard from constituents, they said they can't ignore the importance of farming to the regional economy.
"Here on the Eastern Shore, certainly the poultry industry is key to our economic stability, so we've just got to try to find the proper balance," said Merrill W. Lockfaw Jr., vice president of the Worcester County Board of Commissioners.
A continuing conflict
On one side of the property line between the Berley home and the Vinh farm lives a concerned family.
Berley plans to have his well water tested soon, fearing that the manure covering the floors of the chicken houses next door is filtering through the sandy soil. He said he can't let his dog roam freely like he used to because he fears it will drink from a drainage pond between the farm and his home.
"I'm not saying we should stop growing chickens in the country," Berley said. "But we should do it in a way that doesn't hurt the landowners who live near these chicken farms."
On the other side of the line, Vinh is pursuing what he considers a "no-brainer" business opportunity. He chose to jump into the chicken industry almost a decade ago after a career as a business analyst because it offered a peaceful lifestyle reminiscent of his upbringing around the rice fields of Vietnam.
"I think I can have a good future with this business," he said. "I can raise my kids and put them through college by raising chickens."
Others clearly see the same opportunity. Across the street, beyond a stream just miles from the Chesapeake Bay and through a narrow forest, there's a cluster of 30 more chicken houses — and a neighbor with plans for another two.