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Tender Times Is sky falling on the chicken boom? Disquiet hits Shore's biggest industry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bishopville -- When Jean Bunting was a little girl, helping her mother feed the chickens, it seemed the sky was the limit for the poultry business.

After all, her late mother, Cecile Steele, started this country's chicken-for-meat business in 1927 when she turned a mistaken order for 500 egg layers into a then- spectacular profit of $1,000 by trucking the birds to a New York butcher.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the money from ensuing flocks kept rolling in, buying new barns and paying for college educations for all the Steele children.

But now, after more than 40 years of raising broilers, Mrs. Bunting believes the sky may be starting to fall.

Today, she raises 65,000 chickens every seven weeks. But for every 5,000 chickens she sells, Mrs. Bunting is making less than what her mother made on her first flock of 500. The Buntings now have other jobs to pay their bills.

It is a story being echoed across the Delmarva Peninsula.

For six decades, the poultry industry here soared -- growing from the Steele family farm's 500 hens to the 548 million chickens produced last year by eight corporations with more 22,000 employees.

Now everyone, from growers to poultry-processing plant executives, is worried the end of the boom may be in sight.

After tripling in the past 50 years, Americans' average annual consumption of chicken hit 69 pounds last year, leading many in the industry to wonder whether people can stomach more.

"There is a lot of concern over how long this can keep going on . . . I don't think this is sustainable," says Allen Rahn, a Michigan State University agricultural economist who studies the poultry industry.

Although the number of chickens grown on the Eastern Shore continues to rise, some companies say a glutted market and sinking prices have forced them to cut operations or search for alternative products.

Prices for chicken have hit an all-time low in real terms. Today, a pound of chicken can be purchased for 4.5 minutes of an average worker's wage, down from 30 minutes in the 1940s.

Last year, ConAgra Inc. stopped sending chicks to 30 Delmarva growers to prevent an oversupply of chickens. Perdue Farms Inc. reduced its costs by cutting wages and then laying off some of its Salisbury-based chicken gatherers.

Several chicken companies have started to experiment with producing other kinds of meats -- from pork to striped bass -- to soften the impact of an end to the chicken boom.

All this could mean profound changes to the Eastern Shore, where the poultry industry is the bedrock of the economy and culture.

Eight processing companies -- Allen Family Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., ConAgra Inc., Hudson Foods Inc., Mountaire Farms of Delmarva Inc., Perdue Farms Inc., Townsends Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. -- employ, directly or indirectly, nearly 1 of every 10 workers on the Shore.

Chicken culture

A drive through small Eastern Shore towns reveals a society built around chickens, not the windsurfing culture of the more well-known beach resorts.

A local machine shop boasts it built the world's largest fry pan for the annual chicken industry fry-off. Farmhouses are decorated by plaster chickens or have metal chicken weather vanes. Old stoneware chicken watering urns are even sold as decorative items in local antique shops.

The nation's $18 billion poultry industry is dominated by executives, such as Salisbury's Frank Perdue, who has spent millions to advertise himself as a "tough man" with a ruthless devotion to efficiency.

Now many on the Shore are afraid that an end to the growth will simply make an already lean and mean industry leaner. And meaner.

"Who put the paint on Delmarva? Poultry put the paint on Delmarva," the slogan went, and Edward H. Covell helped the paint go on.

Mr. Covell, who is now retired, headed what was the Shore's second-largest chicken processing company, Bayshore Foods Inc., in the 1960s and 1970s. He started his working life in a small grocery store during the Depression.

Bartering for eggs

Then, the vegetable farmers who had dominated the Shore's economy were failing because of the collapse of markets and prices.

"I know what it was like when there wasn't a lot of money," he recalls. "Women would bring eggs to town and would barter. I'd work up a credit for them so they could buy ham."

The revolution begun by Mrs. Bunting's mother started a dizzying race to produce bigger, better and cheaper chickens.

Growers found that reducing their prices -- even a fraction of a penny -- won them big sales increases.

Mr. Perdue and other growers prospered by eliminating middlemen, consolidating almost every step in the growth and delivery of chickens -- from processing the feed to packaging the meat.

They hired geneticists to cross-breed chickens and created a super-bird that grows to the standard 4 pounds in seven weeks and eats only 8 pounds of grain -- in one third of a natural bird's growing time and with half the feed.

They hired engineers to invent machines to feed, water, kill, pluck, debeak and debone chickens -- automating nearly every part of chicken growing and processing.

They schemed for even the tiniest advantage, because profit margins for processors are often eggshell thin and always wildly cyclical.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that profits swung from 5.2 cents a pound in 1955 to a loss of of 1.1 cents a pound in 1959. Profits soared in the mid-1980s, hitting 12.6 cents a pound in 1986. They have been declining since then, hitting about 6 cents a pound in 1992.

At Townsends Inc., based in Millsboro, Del., nutritionists last year replaced 2 percent of the soybeans in the standard feed mix with cheaper flour byproducts for the middle two weeks of a broiler's life -- shaving 13/100 of a penny a pound off the price of their chickens.

Fervor to cut costs

That may not sound like much, but because Townsends processes 4 million birds weekly, the change saved the company $5,000 a week.

Sometimes the fervor to cut costs has gone too far.

Mr. Perdue, for example, was so opposed to unionizing his plants, which he feared would raise labor costs, that twice in the early 1980s he was recorded by the FBI asking a member of the Gambino crime family for help in fighting the union.

Paul Castellano, the Gambino man, declined, and Mr. Perdue defeated the union anyway. He later said that approaching Mr. Castellano was a big mistake. (Mr. Castellano was later gunned down outside a New York City steakhouse.)

Because the more they cut costs, the more money they made, industry executives created an odd culture of fantastic wealth and stony penury.

Mr. Perdue, though worth millions, would show up at his company's Salisbury headquarters wearing shoes with holes in them, co-workers recall.

To save on toll calls to Delaware, one friend across the state line says Mr. Perdue (who loves to drive Mercedes-Benzes) would drive up for a visit to borrow his phone.

Today, the retired chairman of the nation's fourth-largest chicken producer -- donor of $2.4 million to the Salisbury State University's business school which bears his name -- lives in a modest two-story brick house not far from his birthplace in Parsonsburg.

Economic ground lost

Yet even during boom times, the companies' drive to cut costs meant that workers and growers lost economic ground. Now, they fear, an end to the boom will hurt them even more.

Twenty years ago, for example, Maryland poultry workers earned two-thirds of what the average Marylander earned. By 1989, poultry workers earned an estimated $13,500 or 61 percent of the average Marylanders' wages.

Poultry plant workers have even lost ground against other workers on the Eastern Shore. In 1989, they earned only three-fourths of what other Eastern Shore workers made -- down from 90 percent two decades ago.

And conditions at work have not improved appreciably. While lost-time injury rates in other U.S. workplaces have stabilized at a little less than four injuries for every 100 workers, problems have worsened in chicken plants, according to federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration statistics.

Chicken plant injuries rose by 20 percent in the last decade, reaching 11.2 injuries for every 100 workers in 1991, or nearly three times the U.S. average. The plants continued to be the sixth-most dangerous work sites in the nation.

Now, workers and growers say, they are being squeezed even harder as companies prepare for a shift in the industry.

Manwell Cottman, one of a half-dozen Perdue chicken catchers, was dismissed after striking to protest a 17 percent pay cut.

Mr. Cottman found a job at a lumber yard. Although it pays less than chicken-catching, he considers himself lucky. Some fellow crew members are still unemployed months after the layoff.

Those who remain on the Perdue jobs now get as little as $1.89 for every thousand chickens grabbed from manure-covered floors and stuffed into cages. They have to catch an extra 10,000 chickens each night to make up the difference from the pay cut.

Eastern Shore counties have suffered far higher unemployment than the rest of the state. Unemployment in Worcester County, for example, reached nearly 18 percent early this year, nearly three times the level of the rest of the state.

Dinosaur chicken nuggets

Although the industry has managed in recent years to sell about 5 percent more chicken every year, even poultry's biggest boosters tacitly concede that growth in the future won't come from selling today's Americans another chicken meal, but from other markets -- exports or new products.

"Our leadership is totally dedicated to growing," said Mr. Perdue. "And the only way to do that is to find new markets."

His company, which is now run by Mr. Perdue's son James, has expanded beyond its traditional fresh chicken into processed food, such as dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.

But other chicken companies are hedging their bets by diversifying beyond chicken.

Tyson Foods, Inc., the Springdale, Ark.-based king of American chicken production, has bought a fishing fleet and a processing plant on the West Coast.

And Tyson managers have been signing up formerly independent hog growers to contracts very similar to those it uses with chicken growers, processing the hogs in their own plants and distributing the meat to markets themselves.

Why? Because what Tyson learned from chicken was a system of producing meat (or, as Tyson employees call it "center-of-the-plate protein") cheaper and faster than anyone. And they think they can do the same to fish, pork and maybe even beef.

"We want to expand to be the overall general center-of-the-plate protein provider," explains Archie Schaffer, a spokesman for the company.

Taking second jobs

Though she would rather stick with raising poultry, because it is all she knows, Mrs. Bunting also is being forced to diversify

Hudson Foods, the company that sends the Buntings their chicks, had pressed them to improve their barns or risk losing their contract. This forced the Buntings to borrow thousands of dollars for new equipment.

Now, they use their chicken profits to pay off the loan, but have had to find other ways to put food on the table.

Mrs. Bunting gives piano lessons to local children. Her husband drives a school bus.

"If we didn't have the school bus, I don't know what we'd do," she says.

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