“Why’d the chicken cross the road? … For better opportunities!” This joke received huge laughs last weekend at the annual Factory Farm Summit hosted by Socially Responsible Agricultural Project in Ocean City, Maryland. Activists, farmers, and frontline community members from across the country came together to share stories, trainings, and the clear message that factory farms cannot be in our future! I left both horrified with the power of the poultry industry in Maryland and reinvigorated to fight for healthy and sustainable agriculture practices.
I grew up in Maryland, so I am not new to the sight of driving past huge trucks filled with hundreds of chickens stacked in cages. But what I had not realized was the extent that massive factory farms have been popping up right next to neighborhoods on the Eastern Shore with zero consent from nearby homeowners.
I joined community members on a tour of farms in Somerset and Wicomico Counties, and I was shocked to see massive chicken houses right next to roads, homes, and schools. I learned these chicken houses will hold a quarter of a million birds per year, and there were often up to 10 houses in a row right next to the road; that’s almost 2.5 million birds per year on just one farm.
One neighbor of these massive factory farms, Lisa, told me about the horrors of living here. “When you step outside, the smell is unbearable. It gets in your clothes and in your nose, we can’t open the windows in the summer because of the stench.” But the issues go far past just smell.
There are dozens of chemicals in manure, most of which are air pollutants and most of which infiltrated into surrounding homes.
“I have to take allergy medicine everyday, and [my husband] has bronchitis now. This never used to happen to us.”
Lisa takes care of a small farm that is currently threatened by these chicken factories. The property has been in her family since the 1600’s, so she has no intention of moving despite growing health concerns. For her, moving isn’t even a viable option, since property values plummet the minute 2.5 million chickens move in next door.
“This is not agriculture, this is industry.”
The farmers running these factory chicken farms contract with mega-poultry corporations. These corporate “integrators” own the birds, provide the feed, and often require expensive upgrades to chicken houses which force farmers to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
For the past several decades bad farm policy has made maintaining a small, diversified family farm exceedingly difficult, and many farmers who contract with Perdue or Sanderson Farms or other integrators do so because they see few other options to save their farms.
As we pick up our banners for change, we are not anti-farmer, or anti-poultry. We are anti-factory farm!
On the factory farm tour, Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP) and others made sure not to vilify the farmers-- rather, the explosion of factory farms on Maryland’s eastern shore is a result of bad farm policy, corporate power and consolidation in the poultry industry, and weak environmental regulations.
Corporate integrators pit farmers against one another through the tournament system, whereby the top performing growers receive higher pay-- which comes from paying the lower performing growers less. The problem is that the corporate integrator can influence which farms produce bigger and better birds by controlling the quality of chicks that are shipped to those farms. Integrators use this system to punish growers for speaking out or for refusing to make expensive upgrades.
According to Dr. John Ikerd of University of Missouri, this system was set up intentionally to disrupt the traditional farming culture and community where neighbors would help each other and work together on their farms.
The end result is neighbor versus neighbor. When farmer income is based on how they produce in comparison to their neighbors, there is a huge wedge in any mobilization effort for a unified movement to stand up against the industry.
So as we pick up our banners for change, we are not anti-farmer, or anti-poultry. We are anti-factory farm!
Chief Dennis Coker of the Lenape tribe of Delaware shared that they have a tradition to consciously preserve our environment so that our descendants seven generations from now will thrive on our land. Right now, we are failing on this mission. But, there are community members saying enough is enough.
When community members risked their safety to speak out against these massive poultry players and ask their local government for help, they were met with skepticism, denial, and lack of action.
That’s why Food & Water Watch is working with these community partners, as well as Senator Rich Madaleno and Delegate Robbyn Lewis to introduce the Community Healthy Air Act in Annapolis this January.
The Community Healthy Air Act will require the Maryland Department of the Environment to collect air quality and public health data from factory farms and to assess public health risks. This legislation is necessary to make sure that rural communities in Maryland are not left behind to suffer from asthma, lung disease, and cancer just so that we can have endless chicken on our plates.
We need the whole state of Maryland to recognize what is happening on the Eastern Shore and to speak up in support of the Community Healthy Air Act.
Sign our petition to your state representatives today and ask them to support the Community Healthy Air Act so we don’t value poultry profits over the health and safety of communities in Maryland!