Annapolis, MD—Maryland Senator Richard Madaleno (D-18) introduced two pieces of legislation on the Senate floor today that will create new protections for poultry contract growers while also bringing equity to ongoing efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by requiring some of the biggest polluters of the Bay to contribute to conservation measures.** Madaleno’s sponsorship of the Farmers’ Rights Act and the Bay Tax Equity Act is a critical first step toward correcting injustices within Maryland’s agricultural sector that have had a negative impact on the livelihoods of local growers and the health of the Bay.
The Farmers’ Rights Act will help Maryland lawmakers take meaningful steps toward protecting the region’s contract growers from the often-abusive practices of giant poultry companies by putting forth a set of guaranteed grower’s rights, while prohibiting many of the abusive practices, that force contract growers into poor working conditions and leave them with a tremendous amount of debt.
The Bay Tax Equity Act, which is a new version of legislation introduced last year, will hold Maryland’s poultry companies, some of the biggest polluters of the Bay, partially accountable for their contribution to nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay by requiring them to pay their fair share towards the necessary costs of Bay restoration. The bill would require poultry companies to contribute to the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Cover Crop program, a $20 million per year initiative designed largely to address the massive amounts of excess chicken waste produced on the Eastern Shore where the chicken companies operate. Presently, this program is funded entirely by state taxpayers, including the diversion of funds from the annual $60 tax placed on the state’s septic users. By shifting the financial burden of the Cover Crop program over to the profitable companies who create the problem in the first place, the BTEA would allow 100 percent of the septic money collected to go towards the critical need of upgrading the state’s septic systems.
“Maryland taxpayers are subsidizing the big chicken companies that pollute for free,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Perdue alone has received several millions of dollars in grants and payments from the state of Maryland since 2008, while the company leaves its waste behind for others to deal with. Meanwhile, Eastern Shore growers struggle financially while tolerating poor working conditions and unfair contracts. These two separate pieces of legislation will go a long way toward bringing equity and accountability to an Eastern Shore agricultural system that currently leaves big chicken companies free to pollute the Bay and treat its contract growers unfairly under one-sided contracts. ”
“There are some fundamental changes needed in Maryland’s current food system,” said Senator Richard Madaleno. “For too long our state government has allowed these big poultry companies to operate in the state with little to no accountability for their unfair practices, whether its with polluting the Bay or taking advantage of our struggling framers. It time we started to shift the burden and hold this industry accountable.”
Poultry companies in the Eastern Shore have profited from an inequitable system of production over the last several decades. Using abusive corporate practices, poultry integrators reap billions of dollars in annual revenues while, across the country, 71 percent of contract growers without off-farm jobs live below the poverty line. The Farmers’ Rights Act would ensure fair contracts between growers and integrators and bring transparency to otherwise hidden clauses and guidelines. The bill would also allow contract growers to openly discuss their contracts, working conditions and other work-related issues, while prohibiting the common “tournament” system of pay that forces growers to compete with each other.
The factory farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the poultry companies raise their birds, produce an immense amount of nutrient pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. The state’s agricultural sector is the largest contributor of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment to the Bay watershed, with the poultry industry alone producing a billion and a half pounds of waste each. Many of these big companies refuse to take responsibility for the waste, but with 300 million chickens on the Eastern Shore, contract growers are forced to dump excess manure on already saturated farm fields, where it ends up in the Bay and its tributaries.
Maryland needs laws in place to correct the abusive practices and rampant pollution that are currently inherent to our system of agriculture. Poultry companies will only treat their contract growers with dignity and fairness, and make efforts to clean up the excessive amounts of waste they produce, if forced to do so.
Maryland’s legislators should support the Bay Tax Equity Act and the Farmers’ Rights Act to end Big Chicken’s free ride on pollution and to protect the growers who we rely on for our food.
**UPDATE: On February 12, Del. David Moon introduced Bay Tax Equity Act legislation and Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo introduced Farmers’ Rights Act legislation in the Maryland House.
Background and Additional Resources