Faint chirping slipped out of the Mountaire Farms "biddie bus" as it parked alongside David Barnes's two chicken houses in Willards, Md. The converted white school bus -- the delivery vehicle from the company's hatchery in Princess Anne -- held 40,000 infant birds, freshly escaped from their shells that morning.
Two Mountaire workers grabbed stacks of five and six plastic baskets, each stuffed with 100 chicks. As the men entered the first of the two long houses, heat and ammonia filled their nostrils. They snapped their wrists, flinging the young birds sideways, one basket load at a time, the chicks landing in a disoriented heap. A quiet chorus of chirps swelled into a cacophony.
About eight weeks later, a Mountaire tractor-trailer pulled up the same driveway to haul the mature birds to the company's slaughterhouse in Selbyville, Del. Another day, a Mountaire tanker dropped 20 tons of feed into a pair of hoppers alongside Barnes's houses. During the weeks the birds stayed in the houses, Mountaire managers arrived to see whether Barnes -- who raises them under contract for the company -- was complying with their dictates.
Throughout the comings and goings, a burgeoning mountain of manure stayed put. Like all the major poultry companies, Mountaire maintains legal ownership of its chickens throughout the weeks they grow in Barnes's houses, but the manure is his problem. When the time comes to clean out, Barnes hires a Bobcat tractor driver to wheel through the houses, scraping the manure off the floors -- a job that costs him nearly $1,000.
When Mountaire's trucks arrived at the slaughterhouse with Barnes's flock in tow, they pulled onto a scale. Barnes is paid based on the weight, after the company deducts for the feed. The company also calculates how prodigiously his flock grows compared to others. He gets a bonus if they swelled efficiently, a lower rate if they come in lean.
Barnes is guaranteed a minimum payment of about $4,300 for each of the five Mountaire flocks he raises each year. But the bank takes $6,500 from each flock payment, applying it toward his $185,000 mortgage -- the loan that erected the houses. And the bank doesn't care whether that flock was wracked by disease or decimated by heat. A good flock brings him more than $10,000, Barnes said, but sometimes he comes out behind.
Such equations are typical. According to the Maryland Farm Bureau, the average poultry grower operates three chicken houses with a mortgage of $300,000, claiming annual net incomes of less than $10,000 per house. Last year, disease set in. In the last two weeks of one flock, Barnes lost 100 birds every day -- "a pickup truck load," he said. He ended the year in the red, he said. Like many chicken farmers, Barnes doesn't grow crops and has no use for manure.
He gives the manure to a nearby farmer who spreads it across fields as fertilizer. If the farmer isn't ready for a load when it's time to clean out the chicken houses, Barnes usually piles the manure under the roof of a shed he erected for storage. But if the shed is full, he piles the manure outside, despite the risk that rains will wash it into the water. There it sits, sometimes for weeks at a time.
"You try to mound it up as best you can and pile it away from the ditches, but you've got to put it someplace," Barnes said. "It's a disposal problem." And when rain descends, it's a water pollution problem.
The headwaters of creeks are nurseries for fish, but the grasses that nurture young creatures have been blown out by nutrients. The tidal flats where creeks spill into the bays serve as natural filters, their plants catching and digesting pollution before it reaches the water. But the flats are overloaded and bald, shorn of the plants they need. Pollution washes through to the water unimpeded, adding to the woes of the Chesapeake and its coastal cousins.
In May, the EPA Bay Program office announced that seagrasses have declined six years in a row in Tangier Sound, which drains much of southern Delaware and Maryland's lower Eastern Shore. Vital habitat for fish and crabs, seagrasses have receded in the sound by 63 percent since 1992, the agency said. An accompanying analysis found that some two-thirds of the nutrient pollution reaching the sound arrives via the Nanticoke River from southern Delaware, with its thick clusters of chicken houses.
Environmentalists decried the threat to the Chesapeake's famed blue crab. "If we continue to lose grasses at these rates, we risk destroying the bay's most valuable commercial fishery," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.