Supermarket shoppers in Maryland can't miss the signature blue-and-gold Perdue label on chicken and turkey in the meat section. The Salisbury-based company is the nation's third-largest seller of poultry.
That makes it a prime target of environmentalists, who contend "Big Chicken" is fouling the Chesapeake Bay by not taking care of the animal waste produced by the flocks raised for it on thousands of farms across the Delmarva Peninsula.
But in supermarkets with garden sections, consumers are likely to run across another product with links to Perdue, one that even environmentalists like — organic fertilizer, made with manure from some of the fowl grown for Perdue and other companies.
For nine years, Perdue has been recycling manure from chicken houses across Delmarva — about 700,000 tons in all. Some has been sold to other farmers who want the raw "litter" — a mixture of wood shavings and poultry waste — to fertilize corn, soybeans and other crops.
But most is hauled to a sprawling processing plant near Seaford, Del., where it is dried, disinfected and shaped into pellets. The pellets are sold to golf courses, parks and landscapers along the East Coast and west to Tennessee and Texas. Some goes to Scotts, the giant lawn-care products company, which uses Perdue's pellets in its organic fertilizers and garden soil.
"We're big players in the organic farming business now," said Jim Perdue, the company's chairman, "and organic farming is all over the place."
Perdue points to its pioneering large-scale chicken litter recycling operation as a leading example of the company's commitment to environmental stewardship. It has helped earn the company favorable attention on an environmentally themed Discovery network TV program, and Gov. Martin O'Malley praised the chairman's environmental innovation in giving him a business leadership award this year.
Environmentalists, even one suing Perdue, say the manure recycling effort is a good one, as far as it goes.
"It gets it off the Shore — too bad they can't do more," said Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper.
Phillips' organization and its umbrella group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, have sued Perdue and a Berlin farm couple who raise birds for the company, alleging that waste from the farm got into a drainage ditch that ultimately empties into the Pocomoke River, a bay tributary. The lawsuit alleges that Perdue is legally responsible because the birds belong to the company and the grower raising them under contract must follow detailed instructions on how to treat them. The farmers and Perdue have denied the allegations.
Perdue launched the pellet plant after a Maryland law passed in 1998 required "nutrient management plans" limiting how much fertilizer farmers could apply to their fields. The legislation was prompted by a scare over sores on fish and health complaints among fishermen. Scientists suggested that the outbreak could stem from the bay's nutrient pollution, whose primary source on the Shore is fertilizer, including animal manure, running off fields. Scientists said far more chicken manure was being produced by growers on the peninsula than could be spread on cropland without getting into the water.
The company's chairman said he feared the law would pose problems for some chicken growers who might not have enough land for all the manure their flocks produced.
"There are some people who roll up their sleeves and actually do something, and [with others] there's a lot of rhetoric," Perdue said in a recent interview. "We're actually trying to do something to move nutrients out of the watershed."
The plant itself ran into public resistance, as residents familiar with chicken farms nearby worried that the processing facility might produce an even more powerful stench.
Jerry Taylor, whose tackle shop is a half-mile from the plant, said he's been pleasantly surprised. He led a petition drive against it, but now says the plant's been a good neighbor.
"Every once in a while you may get a slight odor from a west wind," he said. "But it's 50 times less than what raw manure would be."
The $13 million plant, 2 1/2 football fields long, keeps dust and odors in check with a negative-pressure ventilation system. Inside, it's a different story. The stench is piercing as trucks deposit their 23-ton loads of raw litter on the facility floor for processing. First, the litter is dried and heated to kill bacteria and any weed seed that might be mixed in. Then it's run through a large hammer mill that grinds it into particles the size of grains of sand. Next, two 500-horsepower mills form the loose material into pellets, which are carried by a network of conveyor belts and elevators to a large room on the other side of the plant. There, they're deposited in piles, warm to the touch, for storage and eventual shipment by rail and truck.
The company sells some of its processed manure to Pennsylvania mushroom growers and to other customers in the Mid-Atlantic region. Some winds up in Scotts Organic Choice fertilizer, garden soil and potting soil. Though it makes up just 5 percent of Scotts lawn and garden product sales, the organic line "keeps increasing as the interest grows," says Bruce Augustin, Scotts chief agronomist.
About 20 percent of Perdue's growers supply chicken litter to the company for recycling. Perdue offers to clean out their chicken houses for free, in return for the manure.
Phil Briggs, 63, who raises 16,000 chickens in Willards, near Salisbury, said the company's annual cleanout has saved him $600 a year. He calls Perdue's recycling operation "an excellent service for the Shore."
Perdue originally tried to market the pellets to farmers in the Midwest, but found it hard to compete against chemical fertilizers because of the cost of processing and shipping. It was a money-loser for years, but since landing Scotts, golf course operators, and parks and recreation facilities, the operation has begun to show a profit in recent months. The privately held company doesn't release profit details.
The plant was built with the help of a $10 million low-interest loan from Delaware and boosted by a $2 million grant shortly after it started. It has gradually increased production to 50,000 tons of pellets a year, company officials say. That may seem like a lot, but more than 600 million chickens are raised annually on the Delmarva Peninsula, roughly half of them in Maryland. And each year, those birds grown in Maryland leave behind 300,000 to 400,000 tons of manure-laden litter.
"We represent a small percentage, but it's a meaningful percentage," said Cathy Klein, a vice president of Perdue Agribusiness Inc.
Still, the plant could handle 90,000 tons a year.
"We could process a lot more," said company spokesman Luis Luna. "The problem is to sell it."
Phillips, the coastkeeper, doesn't buy that argument.
"Perdue has been very creative in finding ways to market its chickens and sell lots and lots of chicken," she said. "I'm sure their marketing department could be just as creative on their pelletized manure and find ways of getting more of it off the Shore."
Jim Perdue says he understands why most farmers prefer to keep their chicken litter to fertilize their crops or to sell directly to another farmer.
"It's a valuable resource," he said.
Russell Brinsfield, director of the University of Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, said the plant represents "a start" toward dealing with the excess of manure.
"That's one alternative," he said. "I think we're going to have to find others as well."
Another option is to burn the chicken litter for its energy value. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, among others, has pushed for development of a manure-burning power plant on the Eastern Shore.
Perdue said his company is looking at the idea and has consulted with the state about partnering with an energy company.
"We use a great deal of energy, a great deal of steam," he said. "If we could use something other than No. 2 fuel oil, we're interested. It fits with our sustainability plan."
But such efforts are long shots as long as chicken manure is the preferred fertilizer for Shore farmers, Brinsfield said. That could change in coming years, he suggested, if the pollution "diet" for the bay being set by the federal government winds up requiring tighter restrictions on how much manure can be applied.
"Over the long haul," Brinsfield predicted, "that equation's going to change."