Maryland’s chicken industry, centered on the Eastern Shore, produces billions of pounds of broilers and fryers every year. It also has produced millions of pounds of chicken waste that environmentalists say have harmed the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
Now, folks who live near those farms are worrying about how all those chickens are affecting their health as well.
Monica Brooks, for example, thought life in the country, starting a church on the lower shore, sounded lovely.
“My family is from New Orleans,” she said. “Both of my parents grew up on farms and I spent every summer - for at least a month - on both of these farms. The air was always so clean and pure.”
But Brooks found trouble in Wicomico County when her neighbor told her about a blurb she’d seen in the local newspaper. It said a 13 house chicken farm was to be developed on the Wicomico Paleochannel, the drinking water source for much of the county.
“When we found out, I started an online petition and just started emailing anybody I knew,” she said.
Those chicken houses, operated by contract growers for poultry giants like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Mountaire Farms, could house as many as 56,000 chickens each. And the idea of 13 of them on her water source really angered her.
"There is something wrong here. And everybody should want something to be done to protect the health and welfare of all the people on this shore,” she said.
Brooks and her neighbors started to rally their community.
They went to the Wicomico County Council, where residents of the four lower shore counties showed up.
Bernadette Cannady, from Santo Domingo, a community originally settled by freed blacks in the early 19th century, called the idea of a 13-house chicken farm over the local water source a huge mistake.
“We cannot take the chance of toxins entering into the water,” she told council members. “And we urge the stop of this construction.”
Dozens of residents turned out month after month at council meetings and town halls. And their concerns went beyond the effect this Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, would have on their water source. When they started researching, they found studies that showed a connection between chicken CAFOs and respiratory illness.
A March 2018 study in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that pathogens transmitted from poultry operations may increase gastrointestinal risks in nearby communities.
And a June 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Epidemiology found that pollution from industrial food animal production may make people living nearby more vulnerable to pneumonia.
In the four lower shore counties, there were more than 210 million chickens sold in 2017, according to the latest survery by the USDA.
Worried about how all those chickens - and all that manure - affect the air they breathe, the residents started pushing the county council to investigate the public health consequences of the chicken houses that were already in operation.
“I’m not against chicken houses,” Elizabeth Close told the council. “My husband works for a company and that is our income. My son is an asthmatic. My husband is an asthmatic. You’re telling me that the air coming through is not going to affect them?”
Close and others told the council that their health concerns were being overlooked in favor of the dollars, and jobs, the chicken industry brings to some of the poorest counties in Maryland.
From growing feed for the chickens to processing them - it’s about 17,000 jobs, according to the National Chicken Council. The trade group Delmarva Poultry Industry estimates the chicken industry pumps $3.5 billion a year into the Eastern Shore economy.
So, when you suggest limiting how many chicken houses can go up, a lot of people worry that you’re also limiting job growth or that a company like Perdue, based in Wicomico County, might pick up and leave, taking all those jobs with it.
“Those houses fed my family,” chicken farmer Charles Wright said at one council meeting. “I’m a Maryland farmer. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this project. You really want this 13 house chicken farm,” he asked.
“Maybe not. But you have to be careful, very careful what you ask for."
Wright said there are farmers like him. He has four chicken houses and wants to put up two more, but worries whether he’ll be allowed to.
“What’s the threshold,” he asked. “I understand fear, the unknown. But when I sit back there, I’m insulted.”
He said farmers and residents co-exist on the lower shore. And he argued that his family’s farm had been on the land a lot longer than the new subdivisions that have popped up over the last 20 years, increasing Wicomico’s population by almost 30% .
Many of those residents - newcomers and old-timers- who were living among the poultry farms were now demanding that their health concerns get immediate attention.
“We need to get experts in - not just experts on growing chicken but experts that are expert at how to take care of the environment and how to prevent any further pollution,” Joann Hofner told the Wicomico County Council. “Because we found studies of pollution existing. So what we need to find now, what you guys need to find now, is how to prevent it.”
So, after months of hearings, the county council asked the local health department to study the impacts chicken farms have on the health of nearby residents.
The authors of the health department’s report said they couldn’t answer that question and that more research and data monitoring was necessary.
With that report and the expertise of environmental health scientists at Johns Hopkins University, residents went to the General Assembly pushing for a bill to monitor the air on the lower shore called the Community Healthy Air Act.
Their numbers grew “from a dozen or so people to hundreds of people who will submit comments to the Maryland Department of Environment, who will write letters to our legislators,” said Kathy Phillips, the executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust.
It was the kind of discussion that once was off-limits in these counties, she said.
“So many people are connected to someone who works in the poultry industry. People were afraid to speak up. They just were like this is the way it is - I can’t breathe and I can’t put my kids in the backyard to play."
In the end, the developers of that 13-house chicken farm gave up and sold the property. It seemed like a win for the residents who opposed it.
But the Community Healthy Air Act, solidly opposed by the poultry industry, died in committee three years in a row. Lawmakers are back with a different bill this year, but it’s unclear what its fate will be.
And the residents concerned about the effects of the chickens on their health have more questions, about their air, their lawmakers and the power of the poultry industry.