One farmer in Harford still growing broilers


Not all of Harford County's chicken farmers have flown the coop.

"But we're down to our last broiler farm," said C. John Sullivan, agriculture coordinator the county's economic development office.

"You talk to the old-timers and they will tell you it used to be a sizable business in the county," he said. "But not anymore."

"There was a time when almost every farm in the county, and there wasn't much except farms in the county back then, had 500 or 1,000 chickens," said 76-year-old James Foard, who runs a Western Auto store in Jarrettsville.

"We used to grow them right here," he said, pointing to a section of the store where the lawn mowers, Castrol chainsaw oil and envelopes of vegetables seeds are displayed.

But for a variety of reasons - most of them having to do with economics - the chicken farms began disappearing.

There was no mass exodus. "It happened slowly beginning in the 1950s," said Foard. "One farm would disappear, then another, then another. It happened over time."

Bill Harrison is the lone survivor.

And his broiler operation, near Five Forks, bears little resemblance to that of his father's and his grandfather's on the same farm.

He came into the industry after most of his neighbors had quit the chicken business.

"I got started in 1988," said the 55-year-old Harrison. "Penfield Poultry Co., out of Lancaster, Pa., wanted chicken houses in lower York County and Northern Maryland. There was increased demand for chicken back then and they wanted to spread out their operations to prevent the spread of diseases."

Things had changed a lot by then, he said. "Modern technology had taken over. It was no longer as labor-intensive as it was when my father ran the farm."

"When I put up this building," he said of a 45-foot-wide by 500-foot-long house holding 26,000 chickens, "everything was automatic. It has an automatic feeder, an automatic fan and automatic heater.

"A lot of people got out because they didn't have the automation that we have now," he said.

His father's death also played a role in his decision to grow broilers. When the 107-acre farm was divided between he and his two sisters, there was not enough land to support many other types of agriculture.

Harrison traces his own affection for chickens and his entrepreneurial spirit to the late 1950s, when he got a flock of 100 baby chicks to call his own. "I was 10 or 11," he said. "I raised the chickens, and Mom and I butchered them and sold them to our neighbors. Boy, that was a tough job."

But it helped create an understanding of chickens that benefits his operation today. "You have got to be into chickens," he said. "You have got to be able to walk into the chicken house and know you have to change the ventilation or the heat.

"You get a feel for things. If the house is not ventilated properly, the ammonia from the manure builds up. It burns the chickens' eyes. They don't eat. They go blind and die."

Harrison said the chicken processing company supplies him with day-old chicks and the feed needed to grow them. "I keep them for nine weeks until they average about 6 pounds."

At that point, he said, the processor picks up the chickens and trucks them to the Chinatown section of New York City where they are sold live by poultry shops and small grocery stores.

"You can make a good little living raising chickens," he said. "I'm paid by the piece. I get 25 cents a chicken and I handle about 120,000 a year. I provide the housing, the electricity and the labor."

Sullivan said that while Harrison is the lone broiler operation in the county, there are still about a half-dozen farms that raise chickens to lay eggs.

"I can remember when just about everybody had laying hens," said George Cairnes, a 79-year-old Jarrettsville resident. "This was back in the 1930s and most farms had three or four different things that they did. They would have dairy cows, beef cows, maybe some hogs and chickens. Everybody had chickens.

"After the war," he continued, referring to World War II, "farmers began specializing. They became dairy farms or grain farms. The machinery got to be so expensive, they had to specialize and get bigger.

"I don't know the last time I saw someone raising chickens," he said.

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