The farm in Delmar where April Ferrell grew up and still lives is surrounded by chicken farms.
Sitting on a golf cart in her yard, Ferrell indicated the lot next door, where she said her parents built two small chicken houses in the 1980s. Then she pointed in the other direction, across the street, where four newer, 600-foot-long chicken houses were visible.
According to data from the Maryland Department of the Environment, that farm across the street — what’s known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO — has about 47,000 chickens at a time.
All those chickens produce a lot of manure — and a lot of smells.
“Sometimes it is noxious, makes you feel a little sick to your stomach,” Ferrell said of the smell. “Earlier when I was out here my eyes were burning, just from the smell. I don't want to say you get used to it, but you kind of do, and it kind of just depends again on the wind and the day. Sometimes you have to be outside for small amounts of time and then go in."
Maryland has more than 500 chicken CAFOs, mostly on the Eastern Shore. They range in size from just over 30,000 birds at a time to more than 560,000.
Ferrell and some other Eastern Shore residents are worried about what those farms are releasing into the air. They worry that the farms are making them and their families sick.
They launched what became a years-long fight at the state legislature. This week, members of the House Environment and Transportation Committee considered the latest effort in that fight.
“The bill is intended to reduce the number of large factory farms or CAFOs here in the state,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties and the bill’s sponsor.
The bill would cap new farms and expansions of existing farms at 300,000 chickens a year if there are other CAFOs within three miles.
“Rather than let these facilities continue to move forward and grow in size, which is the trend that we've been seeing, we think that it's best to put a cap on them for now, and restrict their ability to be able to be licensed until we better understand what's going on here,” Lam said.
Each CAFO contracts with a big poultry company. On the Eastern Shore, some of the most common are Mountaire Farms, Tyson Foods, and the Salisbury-based Perdue Farms.
The chicken houses are typically large metal buildings — the newer ones are about the length of two football fields. Each house can hold anywhere from 25,000 to more than 50,000 birds.
Andrew McLean said his farm in Centreville has about 171,000 chickens in a flock, spread across six houses. He gets five or six flocks, or a total of at least 855,000 birds, a year.
But he doesn’t own those birds. They’re owned by the company he contracts with, Coleman Organic, which is part of Perdue.
“Essentially, they bring the chicks, they bring the feed, they come and pick the chickens up when they're grown and take them to process,” McLean explained. “I get paid for raising them for that seven and a half weeks.”
McLean supplies electricity, water and the buildings. Coleman supplies propane to heat the houses and the pine shavings that line the chicken house floor.
Then McLean is paid per pound at a rate specified in his contract.
“And then there are bonuses based on how well I do compared to the other people that settle that week — that have chickens going out that week,” he said.
Lam and those advocating for limits on CAFOs say they cause a range of illnesses.
A 2018 study of Pennsylvania data found that the closer people live to large poultry production facilities, the greater their risk of getting pneumonia. Another study, from 2017, found that people living near poultry CAFOs are more likely to get gastrointestinal infections.
Poultry CAFOs release many things that could be making people sick, said Keeve Nachman, who specializes in environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-authored both papers.
“Ammonia is very well established to be emitted from poultry production sites and it comes off of poultry manure as well, so that's one of the big potential pollutants of concern that could affect people's health,” Nachman said. “But there are other things in air emissions from poultry production sites. There's dander. There's decomposition of the feathers. There's all sorts of bacterial toxins. There are pathogenic organisms that can be released — E. Coli, Campylobacter, potentially Salmonella.”
But Nachman said the effects a CAFO’s air emissions have on its neighbors also vary based on the area’s geography, the weather, and the size and condition of the farm.
So, he said, Maryland ought to study the public health impact of chicken farms.
In 2017, 2018, and 2019, a coalition of Eastern Shore residents and environmental activists rallied behind a bill known as “The Community Healthy Air Act.”
“The community asserts that the way these operations are being run and what comes out of them is making them sick, and the industry contends that it's not the case,” Nachman said. “And so the bill is designed to objectively generate rigorous, valid data that would be useful in trying to answer that question.”
But each year, the bill, opposed by the poultry industry, died in committee. The state Department of the Environment didn’t take a position but said it would be expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to implement.
“People that are anti-poultry want this information,” said McLean.
He said he’s fine with the idea of studying the air around the chicken farms, but he doesn’t trust the people pushing these bills.
“Some of the groups down on the Lower Shore in particular, that is their goal, that is their sole purpose in life — is to put the poultry industry as we know it on Delmarva out,” McLean said.
The industry is a big player in the Eastern Shore’s economy. Delmarva Poultry Industry, or DPI, the local trade group, estimates the industry contributed $3.5 billion to the local economy in 2019.
“I’m not sure what the Delmarva Peninsula would look like if we didn’t have the chicken industry here to support all of the jobs, to support the open land, the open space with our grain fields that, you know, are providing the corn and soybeans,” said DPI executive director Holly Porter.
As pressure from activists increased, DPI took matters into their own hands. In early April 2018, just before the end of that year’s legislative session, Porter approached the Maryland Department of the Environment about joining forces to conduct a study.
“We’re not trying to do a major comprehensive study,” Porter said. “DPI feels there needs to be sort-of a starting point on seeing how is the air — how is the ambient air in the area near poultry houses?”
DPI and MDE partnered with the Campbell Foundation, which funds environmental research and advocacy projects. DPI and the Campbell Foundation are paying for air monitors at two sites on the Lower Eastern Shore, and MDE will oversee data collection for a year.
They announced the project in late January 2019, just before the Community Healthy Air Act was introduced for a third time.
Those pushing for the more comprehensive study say these new air monitors aren’t good enough.
“I think there are going to be major limitations to having just those two monitors if we're trying to say something bigger picture about the potential impacts of these operations on communities,” Nachman said.
Nachman and other advocates also raised concerns about the industry’s role in crafting a project designed to yield scientific, unbiased data.
But the project made the Community Healthy Air Act seem unnecessary to some lawmakers.
So the fight continues in the current legislative session with the new proposed CAFO limits.
Meanwhile, MDE’s data collection, which was supposed to start last fall, hasn’t begun. MDE said the partners hope to begin in the next few weeks.