Chapter Nine:
The Environmental Impacts of the Poultry Industry

Sarah Foerter

The local community may not care about splattered chickens on the side of the road, but an outbreak of pfisteria may hold their attention. With the population and livestock production increasing, considerable problems with pollution have also increased. The demand to supply certain food influences the crops that are locally grown.  The poultry industry greatly impacts the environment in Wicomico County.  Poultry’s growing and processing practices are causing an environmental transformation for all of Wicomico County. With nature being treated as a commodity, land becomes money, and the agriculture is threatened.

Industrial Development

An environmental transformation is created in this immediate area.  You are what you eat gains a whole new meaning when your present environment caters to the worst process of providing America’s dinner.  This rural area is growing and expanding.  Farms, housing developments, and industries have contributed to the developmental transformation occurring in Wicomico County.  The quality of our environment is also affecting the local economy.  As the Perdue poultry industry has developed, it has produced over 3 billion chickens.  Those chickens in the ‘broilers produce about 355,000 tons of litter per year”[i].  This global enterprise uses Wicomico County land as one of its primary production sites.  The corporate headquarters and processing plant located directly in the city of Salisbury provide plenty of work for the local community.  A decrease in the demand for poultry can affect employment for residents in Salisbury.  Perdue also increased the pollution levels for Wicomico based on high levels of nitrates from certain crops, fertilizers, and chicken waste.  The local economy depends on the successful exported delivery of poultry.  This Tri-State region (consisting of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) is expanding with an increase in population and business activity.  While the population grows the spacious and clean land diminishes. Pollution does amount from over fertilized grassy golf courses and private yards, but agriculture is the primary source of pollution. This once favored farming agriculture is now being dominated by the corporate industries.  Wicomico County is accelerating at a population rate of about 13.1%[ii].  The price of poultry is paid for in full by stress on the local environment. On the Delmarva Peninsula, Wicomico residents have committed its agriculture to a wealthy economy through the production of poultry.

Primary Crops

A transformation in the locally grown crops has also affected the immediate

environment. A prime growing region is located here on the East Coast. Many farmers are somewhat allies with the major corporate poultry industry.  The Perdue industry depends on some of the local farmers to now not only breed a mass production of chickens, but to also grow necessary crops like corn and soybeans used for chicken feed.  Perdue has a significantly large grain manufactory that keeps these crops in the area.  The agricultural corn and soybeans compliment each other in proper rotation.  After the corn is produced to feed the chickens, the fields are replanted with soybeans.  As the corn drains the nitrogen from the soil the soybeans are added to revitalize from the lost nitrogen. These two major crops have presently dominated the farm fields.  Berries, fruits, and melons such as peaches, strawberries, and watermelons grow well in Wicomico’s rich soil. However, the local fields continuously consist of basically corn and soybeans, with some rye and wheat. It has been recorded that ”nearly  all of the poultry litter produced in the state is used as fertilizer on crops”[iii].Ignoring the ideal and premium crops based on available natural resources for this particular land can create several conflicts in the soil.  The corn needs to be consecutively rotated with the soybeans for revitalization of the soil.  The corn literally drains the nitrogen from the soil.  To create a symbiotic relationship the soybean rotates accordingly with the corn to replenish the farming fields.  Since the soybeans are legumes, they are actually nitrogen fixing.  The nodule that is located on the roots form bacteria inside, and take nitrogen out of the air.  Plants feed bacteria in exchange for nitrogen.  This is what allows for the planted soybeans to add nitrogen back into the salvaged soil.  Soybeans help to restore balance in the soil from the crops.

Excessive amounts of poultry manure are often used on such crops as an alternative to using crop fertilizers.  Quite often the recycled manure is not perfectly balanced in the nitrogen and phosphorus levels.  When untested manure is used for crops, the legendary rich soil is in jeopardy.  Corn and soybean crops in Wicomico County are challenging the soil and water by enormously high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous.  With the continual expansion of poultry production since the first hatcheries began in the 1920’s, these two crops remain significant.

Overdose of Nitrates

The soil used for growing these specific crops is being destroyed not only from excess nitrogen delivered from manure, but also from the harmful fertilizers that are being used by farmers.  Toxic chemicals are being sprayed on the produced fruits and vegetables.   Phosphorus is a natural fertilizer that specializes in stimulation.  Historically, farming has transformed from fruit and vegetable fields to corn, chicken houses, and soybeans.  The fertilizers have also tremendously increased.  Though the number of farms have depleted, the actual size of each existing farm is growing.  There are now over 90,000 acres of land dedicated to the production of corn in Wicomico County[iv]. In 1997 the US Census reported that approximately 580 farms still existed in Wicomico County[v].  The poultry industry is a contributor to the transformed fields of herbicide, pesticide, and urbancide spoiled soil.  The Soil Conservation Service was established to protect any wronged soil from such negligent treatment, such as excess amounts of nitrates in Wicomico County.  Many of the crops along with the soil were heavily affected with pesticides.  Uncontrolled pesticides like “DDT was developed during World War II, crop dusting planes regularly broadcasted the pesticide over Delmarva’s marshes”, “was finally banned in 1972”[vi].America has become obligated as the world’s leading producer of exporting approximately half of our produced food.  The rich and fertile soil is then altered then by the effects of principal crops in Wicomico County. 

Poultry Manure in the Water

The abuse of fertilizers and excessive amounts of manure are polluting the environment.  Millions of chickens are producing waste into the valuable land and water.  The poultry industry is responsible for “disposing of the 750,000 tons of manure produced each year by the peninsula’s 600 million chickens”[vii]. Remains from packaged poultry are disposed and flushed into Wicomico’s environment.  The rivers and waterways are used for the washing and dumping of dead chicken remains. The manure produced by the millions of chickens is recycled for crop manure use.  Unregulated manure used on crops increases the possibility of a nitrate overdose. Unfortunately, this natural fertilizer contains too much of the nitrogen and phosphorous that is needed to replenish the soil.  The conflict lies in the fact that more manure is produced on the peninsula than is locally needed for refertilization.  The crops are not able to utilize all the nutrients delivered from the manure, so profitable fertilizer pellets can be distributed from the excess manure.  The Maryland Consumption of Primary Plant Nutrients recorded that even though the nitrogen and phosphorous levels have decreased somewhat since 2001, they still remain dangerously high.  Researchers at the “CBF calculates that a staggering 459 million pounds of nitrogen pollution will likely flow into the Chesapeake Bay in 2003, contributing to one of the largest “dead zones” in almost 20 years”[viii].After agriculture is dominated by nutrient pollution, fertilizers are also used on the crops.  These toxics will have no place for proper disposal with nitrate limits already over exceeded to a threatening high level. The Eastern Shore region is now under the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

Nitrogen in Wicomico County’s waterways is dangerously high.

Balance Required

The proper nutrient balance necessary to stimulate crop growth requires proper drainage.  Commercial fertilizers and poultry waste that are used for the survival of local crops are effecting the transformation in this region from improper disposal. The result in a ‘simultaneous over-use of poultry litter on some lands, combined with the importation of commercial fertilizers on others, demonstrates that nutrient imbalances exist within the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed”[ix]. The seasonal heavy rainfall in Maryland also causes for more runoff of toxics from the developed agricultural land into valuable waterways.  Currently, “agriculture contributes 40 percent of the nitrogen entering the Bay, so it offers the greatest opportunity for reducing nutrient runoff” from “approximately 300 million pounds of nitrogen pollution” annually[x].   Nitrogen pollution in our precious Chesapeake Bay has received a place on the EPA’s “dirty waters”[xi] list due to excessive nitrate pollution.  

A decrease in excess runoff of nutrients can be controlled by monitoring the balance in water quality. Proper balancing can certainly aid in this war on pollution.  A million pounds of nitrogen has been estimated for reduction to help revitalize local waters.  So much nitrogen pollution actually steals the oxygen (reducing the water quality) from the water and can interfere in the absorbed sunlight by fragile grass that is underwater.  The grass underwater needs a healthy supply of oxygen and sunlight in order to successfully grow. The chicken manure does replenish the land, but a year of the soil being overdosed with fertilizers has contaminated the county of Wicomico.  Excess amounts of nutrients from nitrogen in the chicken manure enter the soil then it is stored in the ground surface and eventually ends in the water streams. This is the process in which nitrogen can specifically enter the Wicomico River. Fortunately, the excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the Chesapeake Bay can be reduced and consequently be prevented in the future.  Necessary attention to preserving the Chesapeake Bay depends on a successful plan to motivate those that are presently and also those who will in the future rely on agriculture as part of their career, to use the land wisely.  A reduction in nitrates is required for a healthier environment.

Polluted Waterways

The overdose of nutrients from surface runoff is a major source of water pollution.  After nitrogen flows into the soil it then is dissolved when it reaches the water.  Nitrogen and phosphorous that is washed or even blown off of the farm fields also contaminates the groundwater.  Pollution ends up in the creeks, lakes, rivers (a major body like the Wicomico River), streams, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. 

The primary contributor of pollution is awarded to the poultry industry.  Perdue has particularly misused the local environment. In “February 1995 through April 1999, Perdue exceeded environmental limits at least 157 times, sometimes dumping double or triple the pollution it should have into the Salisbury, Md., treatment system”[xii]. Industries that ignore the need to limit the amount of pollution that is disposed into the local waterways only increase the maintenance necessary for a healthy environment. The millions of broilers in Wicomico County “produce about 355,000 tons of litter per year. This litter is rich in both nitrogen and phosphorus”[xiii].  One type of nutrient pollution is a non-point source from land runoff.  Around 1500 miles of the Wicomico basin has drains allowing water to travel.  If agriculture is a major contributor of excess nutrient pollutants into the water, then the source necessary to control should be obvious.  From poultry to the soil then the water, pollutants travel. 

Water Travels: Pollution Travels

The watersheds throughout the particular area especially allow for manure and fertilizer nutrients to quickly runoff of the surface into the waters.  The quality of the water is very vulnerable when millions of gallons of water are used to flush the remains of the packaged poultry into the local waters by cleaning after a hard days work in a nearby slaughterhouse.  Under the Delmarva Peninsula there exists the Paleochannel aquifer.  This is a shallow aquifer that sits under the area of Wicomico County. The major pollutants discussed such as the toxic fertilizers and chicken litter can threaten this shallow aquifer.  The Upper Wicomico River basin is affected by groundwater not just running off the land, but saturating the soil with nutrients is another environmental source of conflict.  The Wicomico River is approximately 18.5 miles running from Delmar through Salisbury, out to Tangier Sound and continuously carries enriched nitrogen and phosphorous into the Chesapeake Bay then finally into the Atlantic Ocean. Another special feature is the 10 mile Paleochannel in the riverbed in Wicomico County. Poultry pollution is not just a local problem, but a concern for the entire global environment.

Environmental Plans

Fortunately, there are protection plans to save the ecosystem.  Plans to protect the environment need to be appreciated when “Brown foam still builds up near the plant’s discharge pipe, a telltale sign of too much nitrogen”[xiv].  With “more than 1.3 million gallons of water to clean debris of 220, 000 chickens processed each day in Perdue’s slaughterhouse” the waste in the water requires attention[xv].  Presently, in the city of Salisbury is a dumpsite that definitely doesn’t smell or look very pleasant.  The greatest change over time was when environmental management developed.  In the 1970’s the community really became aware of the harm being inflicted on the local environment.  The Clean Water Act was established to savor the many sacred waterways. A Comprehensive plan was introduced in 1992 to preserve and protect the wetlands. In the past, Maryland has had to close rivers due to too much nitrogen that steals oxygen caused from the over stimulated algae.

To ensure the water quality, restoration is necessary.


 Manure pollution has been linked to the spread of Pfiesteria that has impacted on society. A marine organism such as Pfiesteria can be found in the Chesapeake Bay and can actually cause the death of aquatic life as well as problems in human’s health.  When harmful toxins are produced, harmful algal blooms create a decline in healthy marine life. The problem with Pfiesteria is that it actively swims through the water, damaging water quality and seafood. This organism can be hazardous to humans if it is inhaled or makes skin contact. This peninsula needs to significantly limit pollution from the thousand tons of manure.  Spontaneous random inspection checks are not enough to ensure that the water is being treated properly.  The EPA is fighting against the chicken industries pollution and giving companies large financial motivations to not pollute over a fixed limit.  Pollution has increased as chicken factories grow.  Wicomico’s ecology needs serious conservation to preserve the county’s beautiful natural resources.  .  The quality of the ground water in the Paleochannel is jeopardized by hazardous waste and chemically contaminated soil.  The local water affected by pollution reduces the legendary beauty of Maryland’s natural environment.  Environmental restoration plans are on the rise as the population and industries grow.

Maintenance Techniques

Assistance in pollution prevention can come from several different techniques.  Farmlands contributing unwanted fertilizers, chicken litter and waste are contaminating the surface runoff, groundwater, and valuable wetlands.  The numerous wetlands are highly significant by the plants adding oxygen, they absorb extra nitrogen and phosphorus and the vegetation decreases soil erosion from wave energy off the shore.  Buffers are now reducing pollutants presently in the soil and water.  Now that companies are accepting responsibility, the farmers can also help to produce a healthy environment. The role that farmers play in reducing pollution is essential.  The disposal of chicken manure should be managed accordingly.  Too much manure in certain areas distributes excess amounts of harmful nitrates into agriculture.  Therefore, by testing the soil before more manure application, a farmer can identify if their crops have already been stimulated enough. The excess manure can be processed into fertilizer pellets and sent out to the market. Several fertilizers are now available with the bonus of high priced taxes.  The commercial fertilizer pellets are also burned as fuel.  Maintaining manure as a natural fertilizer is essentially healthy and beneficial for the soil.  High levels of nitrate explain the hazardous transformed environment.  By converting the manure into fertilizer pellets not only controls the nitrate amounts but also presents an opportunity to export this product on the market.  This procedure helps the farmers increase their income while the soil and water are not spoiled with as much nitrogen and phosphorus.  To control the runoff of manure into the water, the farmers can create a storage shed.  Combat soil erosion can be conserved and beneficially impact the irrigation and the economy. 

Crop Management

Along with rotating the corn and soybeans, these crops can be planted in wider rows and undergo a system of runoff conservation called crop-stripping.  This technique can maintain the soil erosion.  By controlling the placement of crops (regarding surrounding slopes, wind, and water) can affect the travel of collected hazardous pollutants.  Farmers have relied on directly using available manure for fertilization.  From the crops there is ‘grain left behind by mechanical corn pickers that has not only increased the population of Canadian geese, but actually changed their migration patterns. They are now so numerous that they are crowding out other waterfowl”[xvi] from the environment in Wicomico County. These methods of soil management and conservation have been ignored due to a history of not relying on proper regulations. A huge conflict lies in individuals versus the environment in relation to pollution. The environment has been transformed into a collaboration of toxics. Protection of our agriculture is necessary. 

Pollution can be Prevented

A significant transformation has occurred in Wicomico County resulting from America’s demand for poultry.  First developments wiped out vegetation and consequently reduced the quality of the environment.  Primarily grown crops, specifically corn and soybeans have come to dominate Wicomico farm fields.  Over time excessive nitrogen and phosphorus have been contaminating the crops, then the soil, and eventually the waterways.  To export the grain used for chicken feed would free the farming fields of corn and soybeans, thus, allowing for typically ideal crops to be grown, such as juicy strawberries and plump tomatoes.  Not growing corn and soybeans in Wicomico County would desirably decrease the dangerously high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus found in the soil and water.  There are also fertilizers, chicken litter and waste that are quickly amounting, and require a safe and realistic method of disposal.  Thankfully, pollution can be reduced and conditionally prevented through proper management.  There are available alternatives and options to everything, but allowing for our environment to be controlled through the suffering of soil and waterways that is caused by pollutants is not a choice anymore. Problems with these types of pollution can be treated with environmental awareness.

The Goal

[i] Parker, Doug. “Alternative Uses for Poultry Litter”. 2004. Page 1.

[ii] 1990 U.S. Bureau of the Census

[iii] Parker, Doug. “Alternative Uses for Poultry”. 2004. Page 1.

[iv] 1997 U.S. Bureau of the Census

[v] 1997 U.S. Bureau of the Census

[vi] Scott, Jane. “Between Ocean and Bay: A Natural History of Delmarva”.  First Edition. Tidewater Publishers. 1991.

[vii] Goodman, Peter S. “Poultry’s Price” The Washington Post. August 9, 1999. Page 1.

[viii] Dollar Christopher D. “Save the Bay: Chesapeake Bay Foundation”. Fall of 2003. Volume 29, No. 4. Page 6.

[ix] Parker, Doug. “Alternative Uses for Poultry Litter”. 2004. Page 1.

[x] Dollar, Christopher D. Winter 2004. “Save the Bay: Chesapeake Bay Foundation”. Vol.30, No. 1

[xi] Dollar, Christopher D. Winter 2004. “Save the Bay: Chesapeake Bay Foundation”. Vol. 30 No. 1.

[xii] Goodman, Peter. S. “Poultry’s Price’. The Washington Post. August 9, 1999. Page 1.

[xiii] Parker, Doug. “Alternative Uses for Poultry Litter”. 2004.

[xiv] Goodman, Peter S. “Poultry’s Price”. The Washington Post”. August 9, 1999. Page 1.

[xv] Goodman, peter S. “Poultry’s Price”. The Washington Post”. August 9, 1999. Page 1.

[xvi] Scott, Jane. “Between Ocean and Bay: A Natural History of Delmarva”. First Edition. Tidewater Publishers. 1991.