WASHINGTON, D.C.—A new analysis from the national consumer group Food & Water Watch found that farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which are dedicated mostly to poultry production, would have earned $137 million more in 2007 if they had cultivated the same proportion of fruits and vegetables as they did in 1940. The report, The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies, examines the economic potential for the region if large-scale poultry production were not the exclusive agricultural engine.
The report outlines how the economic power of large corporations has made farmers vulnerable. It describes how the rising consumer interest in local foods and fresh produce presents an opportunity to change the agricultural landscape on the Eastern Shore to re-emphasize the fruit and vegetable sector that once provided significant earnings for the region.
“Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been transformed into a ‘company town’ dominated by the big chicken companies, especially Perdue,” said Food & Water Watch’s Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “A shift back to Delmarva’s historical roots of growing fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia could get Big Chicken off farmers’ backs and increase farm incomes.”
The Food & Water Watch study examines the rise of the integrated poultry industry on the Eastern Shore and the impact that intense consolidation has on farmers. In 1969, there were 16 poultry companies on the Delmarva Peninsula; by 1998 there were only five, and in 2011 there were only four. The 300 million chickens raised annually produce half a million pounds of manure per square mile on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The high level of economic concentration is especially damaging in the poultry industry, which is known for some of the most draconian contracts in the agriculture sector. The poultry companies hire farmers to raise chickens, but their take-it-or-leave it contracts typically require farmers to go deeply in debt to build and upgrade chicken houses to the company’s specifications. A typical contract poultry grower in Maryland might spend $70,000 annually to service debt on two chicken houses and have net earnings of just over $31,000 a year.
“This new analysis confirms my family farm’s experience: we can grow more than chicken on the Eastern Shore,” said Carole Morison, a former contract poultry grower who has transitioned to producing pasture-raised eggs. “Contrary to what the chicken industry claims, local farmers and the millions of consumers in our region would both do better if farms on the Eastern Shore got out of the trap of contract poultry and instead raised a variety of crops.”
Before Big Chicken captured the Eastern Shore, agriculture was significantly more diversified, with more farms raising more kinds of livestock, row crops, and fruits and vegetables. The rising consumer interest in local foods and fresh produce presents a potential opportunity to change the agricultural landscape on the Eastern Shore to re-emphasize the fruit and vegetable sector that once provided significant earnings for the region.
Food & Water Watch estimated that if 11.5 percent of the cropland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore were cultivated in fruits and vegetables in 2007 (the same percentage as in 1940), farms could have sold crops worth $137 million more than the value of the poultry raised in Maryland that year. The model shifts about 60,000 acres from corn and soybean production and expands the cultivation based on the current distribution of fruit and vegetable acreage in each Eastern Shore county. The loss in feed-crop revenue would be offset and exceeded by sales of an additional $29 million in strawberries, $19 million in fresh and processed sweet corn, $18 million in watermelon, and $15 million in tomatoes and other produce crops.
“Obviously, farmers can’t snap their fingers and shift from feed corn to sweet corn; it will take a stronger regional food system with the capacity to deliver fruits and vegetables to consumers,” Hauter observed. “But the model shows that a more diverse agricultural system on the Eastern Shore could deliver greater earnings to farmers.”
The Eastern Shore case study was part of a multi-sector examination of the cost of economic consolidation in the U.S. food and agriculture industry. Other sectors and regions included Iowa hog production; milk processing and dairy farming in upstate New York; organic soymilk production and organic soybean farming; and California’s processed fruit and vegetable industry.
Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467, [email protected]