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  Plan Spares Big Poultry Companies

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page B01

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening's new initiative aimed at reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay would burden small farmers by limiting their use of chicken manure as fertilizer. But so far, it has spared a more powerful set of agricultural interests -- Perdue Farms and other major poultry companies that dominate Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Glendening's proposal, unveiled Wednesday, would require farmers to follow strict fertilizer management plans that would reduce the farmland runoff that has been blamed for feeding last summer's blooms of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida.

In following the management plans, farmers would be forced to buy commercial fertilizers to replace manure, although Glendening (D) promises tax credits to help defray the higher costs. However, the governor effectively has put the onus on small chicken farmers to find an alternative means of disposing of manure.

Glendening's proposal pleased environmentalists, but many had hoped the governor would go further and require the big poultry producers to help pay the costs of disposing of manure rather than putting the financial burden on the small farmers who sell to them. Glendening said he was considering just such a plan until Friday, when his chief lobbyist, Joseph C. Bryce, said the governor would look to other lawmakers to introduce separate legislation.

"It's a disappointment," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Chesapeake program director for the environmental group Clean Water Action. "We had hoped to have a single bill."

The governor's ambivalent stance highlights a stark reality: Whatever he proposes to address pfiesteria, a powerful political interest -- the environmental lobby or the poultry industry -- will wind up nursing a grudge. If he placates the poultry industry, he exposes himself to criticism that he hasn't done enough to protect Maryland's near-sacred Chesapeake Bay. If he toes the environmental line, some will brand him anti-business. All of this in an election year.

Glendening's own economic advisers are urging caution. James T. Brady, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said Maryland's handling of pfiesteria will be watched closely by industry as an indicator of the state's overall business climate.

"It's going to send the message out to the country as to whether business interests are treated as seriously as other interests," Brady said. "We need to do everything we can to avoid creating the impression that we are just not friendly to business. The poultry industry is a hugely important industry, and we have to be very respectful of that."

Some 300 million chickens worth more than $1 billion are raised annually on Maryland's Eastern Shore. According to numbers compiled by the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a mere 4 percent drop in the state's poultry production would eliminate 1,000 jobs and shave $74 million of economic output.

"You can't kill that industry," said Champ C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "That is the shore's economy."

But those economic considerations are competing with environmental priorities. A blue ribbon commission chaired by former governor Harry R. Hughes last year called for limiting farm pollution as part of the effort to prevent future pfiesteria outbreaks. Last summer, outbreaks killed 30,000 fish and sickened people on the Eastern Shore. The commission specifically recommended that chicken manure now spread across fields as fertilizer be used in other ways so it cannot wash into the bay.

The commission heard testimony about alternative uses for the manure. It can be turned into commercial compost or into pellets and fed to other animals. It can be burned as a heat source or hauled to areas where phosphorus -- a key nutrient in fertilizers -- is not such a problem. Scientists believe nutrients in animal manure likely fuel pfiesteria outbreaks.

But each alternative carries costs. None are immediately profitable, though they hold potential given advances in technology and development of markets for new products.

Environmentalists worked feverishly to persuade Glendening to force poultry producers to take responsibility for the manure, so the small farmers wouldn't be stuck with the bill for disposing of the waste. When Glendening demurred, they rallied around legislation drafted by state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery) that would accomplish the same goal.

But business leaders said making the poultry industry pay for disposing of manure may lead companies to shift operations elsewhere.

"This is a very, very competitive industry," said James A. Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms. "When you start adding new costs on it that nobody else has to do anywhere else, it just makes it that much more difficult."

Perdue said it was far too early to consider abandoning Maryland, but he noted that New Jersey and Maine have lost once-robust poultry industries because of increased costs. "Profitability is measured in the tenth of a cent per pound," he said.

Gerard E. Evans, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist who represents the Delmarva Poultry Industry -- a trade group whose largest benefactor is Perdue -- said Van Hollen's bill would "make it more expensive to grow chickens in Maryland than in any other state in the country."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) called Van Hollen's measure "extremist" and predicted it would not live long in his side of the State House. Even environmentally inclined legislators said the senator's measure had little chance of passage. Also, they said it would hurt prospects for the rest of the governor's pfiesteria package by bolstering charges that he is taking an anti-business tack.

Van Hollen said poultry producers are best suited to pursuing new uses for chicken manure. They have the centralized processing and delivery structures, the marketing know-how and the deep pockets to find a way to turn manure into money, he said.

"They're efficient enough and creative enough that they can do that," Van Hollen said. "If it's done right, it's a potential money-maker."

But Frederick W. Nelson Jr., president of the Somerset County Farm Bureau, said there is no way to tap the large poultry producers for funds without ultimately hurting the small farmer.

"If you put a lot of mandates on them, they're going to put chickens in Virginia and Delaware," Nelson said. "The governor's sending a real clear message to poultry farmers. He's saying he doesn't want them in Maryland.

PFIESTERIA INITIATIVE

Key pieces of Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed Pfiesteria piscicida initiative, announced last week:

Farmers:

Required to participate in now-voluntary state program that advises how much fertilizer to apply to fields; new programs supervised by state at a cost of $8.6 million over three years.

Sewage treatment plants:

14 plants on the Eastern Shore would be upgraded within three years, with $6.9 million added to next year's budget.

Counties:

Required to adopt programs demanding that new septic systems limit pollution.

Commercial lawn care companies:

Required to test soils to establish how much fertilizer is needed.

The state:

Devote $1 million over the next three years to promote Maryland seafood and $1.6 million to supplement federal funding for pfiesteria research.

Spend $3.35 million over three years to encourage efforts to develop, market new products made from chicken manure, such as commercial compost and animal feed pellets.

SOURCE: Maryland Governor's Office

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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