Perdue mulls pullout from Maryland Decision to depend on Pfiesteria-related rules on farm runoff; National solution sought; Planned regulations prompt concerns about area's costs; Agriculture


SALISBURY -- Perdue Farms Inc., the giant poultry processor based here, is considering moving its production operations out of Maryland if new government regulations dealing with the Pfiesteria piscicida outbreak increase the company's operating costs, according to state and industry officials.

James A. Perdue, the third-generation chief executive of the family-owned business, disclosed the company's intentions during a telecast dealing with Pfiesteria aired by WBOC-TV in Salisbury Wednesday night.

"Basically, what he said is that if he can't control costs and costs go higher, he would have to move," said Kay Richardson, president of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the region's trade association.

Richardson was on the half-hour program with Perdue.

WBOC officials and reporters declined to comment on the program yesterday and would not make a transcript available.

Through his public relations office, Perdue declined to comment yesterday, and other company officials declined to discuss the executive's remarks.

In an interview published Oct. 20 in The Sun, Perdue played down the chances of a major pullout by his company, even if Maryland were to adopt stricter standards for agricultural pollution than other states. "It would depend on how much stricter," he said at the time.

However, state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset County Republican and a farmer, told a meeting of the Maryland Agriculture Commission here yesterday that Perdue has indicated he will move if Maryland adopts regulations that boost the company's operating costs to a point at which he feels he can't compete with out-of-state poultry processors.

The Wednesday telecast was not the first time Perdue has made such threats.

"He said the same thing a couple of weeks ago in a speech before the Greater Salisbury Committee," said David Ryan, economic development director for Salisbury and Wicomico County.

Ryan said Perdue told the committee that "he likes it in this neck vTC of the woods, but he has got to be competitive to stay."

Ryan said a pullout by Perdue Farms would be devastating on the region's economy. He said the county has 7,000 manufacturing jobs, and Perdue Farms directly accounts for 2,000 of them.

The indirect impact of Perdue on the number of manufacturing jobs in the county "is as great or greater" than the direct impact, he said. "This would be like Disney World leaving Orlando."

Richardson said there should be national controls on nutrients in farm runoff, which are suspected -- but not proven -- to have contributed to the toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks and fish kills in Maryland waters this summer.

She said regulations that would boost costs for poultry processors in a certain region and not those in other areas would give some companies an economic advantage.

Richardson advocated a national plan that would put all poultry processors on a level playing field. She said that more costly regulations could have the same impact on the five other poultry processors with operations in the state.

During the Agricultural Commission meeting, farm leaders and legislators repeatedly urged state officials to wait until scientists prove the Pfiesteria outbreak is related to farm runoff before hitting agriculture with costly new regulations.

"What I don't understand is that the [Chesapeake] Bay is in better shape now than it was five years ago," said James Steele, who runs a horse farm in Woodbine and is chairman of the 21-member commission that serves as an advisory group to the state agriculture secretary.

"There are reduced nutrients, and yet we didn't have fish kills five years ago."

Del. Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat, said farmers need to do a better job of putting out the message that agriculture is Maryland's largest industry and an important segment of its economy.

"Food just doesn't happen," he said.

"We need to remind people we have the most reasonable food price of anywhere in the world. I'm not sure we make that point enough."

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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