Bush Legs and the Geopolitics of Wicomico Agriculture

Abigail Horton

The Delmarva Peninsula may not seem to have much in common with Russia, but in fact the two spots are connected via a vital economic conduit formed by the shipment of locally produced broilers. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Bush administration sent emergency aid in the form of frozen chickens, particularly the dark-meat leg quarters, helping to ward off famine among residents of the splintered superpower. The chicken leg quarters came to be known as “Bush legs.” As countries regained their economic footing, this humanitarian gesture turned into a behemoth business; in 2003, the United States sold $700 million of chicken to Russia.[i] Charles “Chick” Allen, president of Allen Family Foods, a Delaware based poultry operation that also has plants and growers in Maryland, recalled that business was so bustling in the early and mid-1990’s, his company had an office in Russia.[ii] The Russian market, though lucrative for local poultry producers, is also volatile. The Russian government has attempted to limit the importation of American chicken in order to protect their fledgling domestic chicken industry. One of their recent steps in carrying out this plan was the implementation of a quota on U.S. chicken imports, which has effectively reduced the amount of chicken meat crossing over the former iron curtain by about 30%.[iii] This reduction has impacted Delmarva based poultry companies; Chick Allen estimates that his company is exporting about a third of the volume to Russia than they were in the early and mid-1990’s.

Another clog in the poultry pipeline connecting the two countries developed when Russian officials from the Ministry of Agriculture instituted a 45-day trade ban on U.S. poultry beginning in March 2002. The ban resulted from the inspection of 341 stateside poultry plants by Russian officials, who denied certain poultry producers the opportunity to ship to Russia and imposed contingency requirements on others after alleging that 76 of the plants did not meet their standards for cleanliness. The Russian government maintains that their actions were meant to protect the safety of Russian consumers; some U.S. officials say that the ban was intended to boost Russia’s own poultry industry by reducing the competition, and may have been a retaliatory response to the younger Bush’s tariffs on steel imports into the United States. Some companies, such as Perdue Farms, have limited their dependence on the on-again off-again Russian market, and are instead finding buyers in other places with a high demand for cheap protein, such as Africa.[iv] The problem lies not in finding markets for the darker meat, but in securing a good price.

Separated by vast stretches of land and water, lacking a common language, and operating under different socio-political systems, Russia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore are bound by the web of commodities that satisfies their citizens’ demand for cheap chicken.

Poultry Under Pressure

The Russian controversy over U.S. chicken legs is one of many recent controversies that have led some to question the viability of the poultry industry in Wicomico County and on the rest of Delmarva. Ever since Cecile Steele’s fortuitously misinterpreted order in 1923, the per capita consumption of chicken in the United States has been steadily rising. At the current level of 69 pounds per person per year, however, a plateau has been reached. This is referred to as a mature domestic market. In order to continue growing, the poultry industry has turned to value-added products, like heat-and serve-options and pre-formed nuggets, and to foreign markets which are not yet glutted with fowl.[v]

The example of Bush legs brings home the true meaning of the globalized food system that the industry operates under, in which geopolitical tensions with a country half a world away can directly affect the livelihood of growers and poultry processors in an area like Wicomico County, MD. This web of economic interdependence constructed by the flow of commodities such as poultry is part of a system that divides areas into peripheries, where raw materials are harvested or grown and then processed and packaged, and metropolises, to which these processed and packaged goods are shipped and consumed.[vi] In this system, Wicomico County has been a periphery for most of its agricultural history, growing strawberries, tomatoes, and chickens to ship to metropolitan areas like New York City. A key characteristic of peripheries is a willingness to accept the negative environmental effects of agribusiness in return for the economic benefits it brings. As a periphery becomes more urbanized and transitions into a metropolitan area with a more diversified and less agriculturally dependent economy, this acceptance of environmental degradation comes into direct conflict with the typically metropolitan demand that these less desirable side-effects of the system be moved somewhere else; this attitude is summed up by the oft-heard refrain of NIMBY, or Not In My Backyard.

 In Wicomico County, there are signs that indicate a shift from periphery to metropolis, including increased population and more stringent environmental regulations. Population increase result in the loss of available agricultural land to raise chickens, grow grain for their feed, and dispose of their waste. This loss of land, along with stricter protocols and regulations designed to reduce the environmental impact of various steps in the production of poultry (and more active citizen complaints to see that they are followed), has put pressure on the poultry industry across the Delmarva Peninsula. In addition to environmental health concerns, groups as diverse as the World Health Organization and the McDonald’s Corporation have raised human health concerns about the antibiotics necessary to raise disease-free chickens in modern chicken houses.[vii]

The myriad outside pressures placed on the area’s poultry industry in the past decade have been echoed by internal strife. Unionization attempts by chicken catchers and talk of co-permitting spearheaded by the Contract Growers Association have revealed cracks in the foundation of the vertically coordinated poultry machine that dominates the economic and physical landscape of the Delmarva Peninsula.[viii] To understand the history, the present dilemmas, and the future prospects of agriculture in Wicomico County, local activities must be viewed as part of an underlying and overarching framework that guides global, and thus local, agriculture and commerce. One theory that effectively relates individual and local activities with large-scale economic forces is that of political economy. The theory of political economy assumes that all aspects of society are responses to the political economy, which in the case of the United States is capitalism. According to proponents of this theory, capitalism is the infrastructure, or base, of our society. All of the other legal and political institutions that make up society are called the superstructure. These institutions include our laws, our families, medicine, education, and agriculture. Constant economic growth is one of the fundamental principles of a capitalist society.

 Another characteristic of capitalism is the centralization of the means of production. In the case of the poultry industry, the means of production include everything that gets the chickens from the farm to your dinner plate. This includes the facilities and equipment used to hatch and raise the chickens, the trucks that take the birds from the farm to the slaughterhouse, and the processing plants where the chickens are plucked, gutted, and packaged. The centralization of the means of production means that fewer and fewer groups, in this case Perdue and other large multinational agricultural corporations, have control over the production of chicken for people all around the world.

Wicomico County: An Area in Transition

Driving along the back roads of Wicomico County, it is impossible to miss the signs that we live in a rural, agrarian area. Clusters of chicken houses dot the flat landscape, fields that grew tobacco when we were still just a British colony are now sown with corn, soybeans, and sorghum, and along the Nanticoke and Wicomico there are still pristine stretches of river edged with spatterdock or spartina. Even in its earliest days as part of Britain’s vast empire, before it was called Wicomico County, the area has been part of a far-flung net of agriculture and commerce, connecting the things grown here to countless locations around the world. The tobacco that colonists grew was shipped across the ocean to Britain, and then sent through all of Europe. In the late nineteenth century after the invention of the refrigerated railroad car, shipments of strawberries and other perishable fruits and vegetables bound us to the metropolitan centers of the Eastern seaboard. Canning made it possible for tomatoes and sweet potatoes grown in the sandy, well-drained soils of Wicomico County to be canned and shipped all over the country. Now that the people of the area have redirected their agricultural energy towards raising chickens and growing corn and soybeans to feed the birds, Perdue, Allen, and other industry leaders who have houses and plants on the eastern Shore grow for and ship to markets as far away as Russia and China. All the components of a periphery are present; the food and livestock are grown here through intensive monoculture grain farming and high-density confined animal feeding operations (or CAFO’s, as modern factory farms are called), with all of its associated economic and environmental impacts, and then processed, packaged, and shipped all over the country and overseas.

But the idea of Wicomico County as merely a periphery comes into question as soon as one of those bucolic back roads intersects with U.S. Route 13, a divided highway that bisects the town of Salisbury. Looking at a map, the thoroughfare forms a big “X” with U.S. Route 50, the stretch of road that carries the summertime hordes across the Bay and through Salisbury before dumping them out on the shores of Ocean City. Starting just south of Salisbury, in the town of Fruitland, and traveling north, a Wal-Mart Supercenter, open 24 hours a day, looms on the right, quickly followed by car dealerships and gas stations. The line dividing Fruitland and Salisbury would be undetectable without the Welcome to Salisbury sign; on the left is the campus of Salisbury University, a well-regarded University of Maryland school that attracts many out of state students and shares its theatrical productions, guest lectures, and symphony performances with the local community. The next several miles are packed cheek to jowl with commercial establishments, some local but mostly national franchises; gas stations, movie stores, fast food places, sub shops, a plethora of grocery stores and banks. Then come the car dealerships, lining the approach to the shopping mall, graced with a movie theater and several chain restaurants, although across the street Cactus Taverna and English’s give diners the option of local flavor. Then come the most recent additions as the road creeps closer to the Delaware line. Target, Home Depot, and OfficeMax face off against another Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Staples. There is even a Starbuck’s, that omnipresent cultural marker of corporate capitalism, ensconced in the new Barnes & Noble store.

These establishments are a visual sign of the steadily increasing population of Wicomico County, a population that is decreasingly employed by the agricultural sector. During the first half of the twentieth century, population approximately doubled, climbing from 22,852 in 1900 to 39,641 in 1950. Since 1950, the population has increased at twice that rate, shooting up to 84,644 by the year 2000.[ix]

Table 1

While the economy, including the broiler industry, continues to grow, the number of full-time agricultural jobs in the area is shrinking. In 1990, less than 4% (1,514 people) of the labor force in Wicomico County reported farming, forestry, and fishing as its primary occupation.[x] Despite population growth over the next decade, in 2000 only 383 people reported their primary occupation as farming, forestry, or fishing; they comprise less than 1% of the county’s labor force.[xi] 

            As population increases, so does the need for housing, schools, roads, and sewers. Wicomico County’s zoning laws are designed to maximize farmers’ and agricultural landowners’ ability to sell to developers.[xii] The result is sprawl development, with cookie-cutter housing developments springing up haphazardly all over the county where farm fields used to be, instead of concentrated clusters of development near existing cities and towns. Since 1950, the population dispersion of Wicomico County has shifted from about 50-50 urban vs. rural residents to nearly 70 percent of residents living outside of Salisbury and the county’s small towns. While it is understandable that farmers would want to be able to sell their land for a large profit once they retire or if farming is no longer economically feasible for them, the zoning laws are contributing to the downfall of the rural legacy that so many people associate with this area.

            Doug Stephens, an Eastern Shore native who has followed in his father’s footsteps to sell real estate here for the past seventeen years, says that it is the allure of a rural landscape and a slower pace of life that is driving residents of areas like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New York and New Jersey to buy homes in Wicomico County and other Shore locales. These people want to escape the fast pace of city life, the crippling traffic, and the perceived threat of terrorism that pervades many population centers of the East Coast.[xiii]  Mr. Stephens notes that these very things that attract people to places like Wicomico County are being lost in large part due to the development of rural land that is driven by the influx of population. He predicts that the area “will become more like the places people are trying to get away from.”

Spotlight on the Environment

Another indicator that helps to measure an area’s status as periphery or metropolis is public concern over and governmental regulation of the environmental impact of agribusiness, such as the raising and processing of poultry. A recent environmental scare that focused media attention on agricultural practices on the lower Eastern Shore was the 1997 pfiesteria bloom in the Pocomoke River (other blooms have been recorded from North Carolina to as far north as Delaware Bay). There is some evidence that indicates nutrients may directly stimulate the growth of pfiesteria, and not just the algae it feeds on. Currently, the consensus in the scientific community is that more research is needed, and that no one factor can be said to cause the toxic algae blooms.[xiv] This ambiguous verdict reached by scientists about the cause of pfiesteria is far from an indictment of the poultry industry and the farmers who grow the corn and soybeans to feed their flocks, but the scare created by pfiesteria was sufficiently large to turn the media spotlight on the excess nutrient levels in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, a condition that could largely be traced to runoff of nitrates from too much chicken manure spread out over too small a land area.. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, runoff from the land contributes more than two-thirds of the 304 million pounds of nitrogen and the almost 21 million pounds of phosphorus that enter the bay each year.[xv] Agriculture accounts for a larger percentage of this than any other source; 37% of the nitrogen and 44% of the phosphorus that enter the bay each year come from agricultural sources.[xvi]

*Includes sewage, septic, and air

The high concentration of chicken manure and its negative effects on the environmental health of the Delmarva Peninsula and the whole Chesapeake Bay are a result of the metropolis/periphery system. The system works by concentrating the production of food in specific area, and then shipping the processed and packaged food to cities and countries all over the world. Inherent in this dichotomous network is the potential for great imbalances in the distribution of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. One contributing factor to the excess of these nutrients is the corn and soybeans imported from states as far away as Indiana and Illinois.  As illustrated by the table below, the demand for corn and soybeans generated by the growth of the poultry industry on Delmarva has surpassed this area’s production capacity of these feed grains.

Table 2





Millions of Broilers Grown

Soybeans Used for Broilers*

Delmarva Soybeans Grown

(% of total used for broilers)*

Corn Used for Broilers*

Delmarva Corn Grown* (% of total used for broilers)




8.8   (86%)


41.7   (124%)




11.5   (117%)


35.1   (100%)




11.9   (117%)


36.4   (118%)




16.6   (107%)


42.0   (127%)




16.0   (107%)


41.5   (126%)




15.7   (131%)


47.0   (148%)




12.9   (92%)


51.4   (136%)




13.9   (126%)


34.3  (95%)




18.9   (149%)


51.0   (150%)




20.7   (134%)


51.2   (122%)




15.0    (99%)


40.2   (97%)




20.1   (123%)


55.9   (129%)




20.0   (111%)


61.3   (130%)




16.9   (88%)


32.5   (70%)




19.1   (104%)


56.4   (116%)




20.0   (105%)


60.1   (114%)




16.7   (81%)


39.8   (79%)




12.7   (77%)


28.0   (52%)




20.3   (113%)


24.9   (46%)




23.1   (129%)


37.6   (66%)




23.3   (122%)


49.7   (85%)




24.4   (125%)


46.8   (80%)




22.9   (104%)


50.3   (80%)




17.7   (79%)


32.0   (49%)




25.5   (106%)


48.5   (69%)




14.4   (51%)


39.9   (55%)




22.8   (84%)


60.7   (81%)




19.4   (59%)


43.6   (63%)




22.7   (65%)


60.8   (89%)




18.3   (69%)


39.6   (56%)




28.2   (99%)


67.6   (97%)




25.3   (101%)


66.5   (91%)




13.1   (52%)


35.1   (48%)

       *Numbers in millions of bushels


Between 1970 and 1991, corn yields on Delmarva surpassed, met, or came within 10 percent of meeting the demand created by chicken feed producers around 80 percent of the time. In the decade between 1992 and 2002, this was only true half as often, or 40 percent of the time. Before 1985, there were only two years in which corn production has not been sufficient to meet the demand for chicken feed (1980 and 1983). After 1985, this trend reversed; in the next seventeen years the corn production was not sufficient in any year to meet the demand created by the chicken feed industry (although it did come within 10% in 2001 and 2002). These local shortages are resolved by the poultry industry importing grains from the Midwest. It is only logical that by importing more nutrients (in the form of corn and soybeans, whose nutrients end up in the air and water of Delmarva via chicken litter) than are locally produced, imbalances in ecological systems like the Chesapeake Bay will occur.

Under the political economy of capitalism, which touts profit and demands constant economic growth, the environment is seen as a commodity, something to be exploited in the pursuit of profit. The decline in environmental health that results from the processes involved in industrial production, such as the nutrient runoff that comes from farmers growing intensive monoculture crops like corn and soybeans and growers raising chickens in CAFO’s, can be seen as simply another cost of production, just like paying workers or maintaining equipment. The difference is that the people who live where these activities are taking place pay for these costs of production in environmental degradation, health problems, and taxes used to fund restoration projects to fix the damage that has been done. The companies themselves are not responsible for these costs, a condition that is called externalization of the costs of production. The tradeoff of environmental quality for jobs and economic growth is a natural outcome of the metropolis/periphery system. If the metropolis areas are not available for the production of food, then the process has to happen elsewhere.

A positive result of the externalization of the costs of production is a cheap, safe, and abundant food supply. Chicken is less expensive than beef or pork, and is an important source of protein for many poor people[xviii]. If one chicken company, Perdue for instance, decides tomorrow that they are going to shoulder the economic burden of all of their costs of production, they will be forced out of business. Their cost of production will rise, and so will the market price of their product. Consumers will simply choose to buy another, cheaper brand of chicken. If all of the chicken companies decide tomorrow to take on the costs of production that they have so far been able to externalize, the price of all brands of chicken will rise. Some people will no longer be able to afford chicken, thus eliminating an important source of protein in their diet.

Workers of the World…

Another requirement for an affordable, safe, and abundant food supply is relatively cheap labor. An abundant cheap labor supply is one of the factors that facilitated the growth of the poultry industry in Wicomico County. Although working conditions have improved over the years, workers who harvest and process food still face health, safety, and economic concerns. Poultry processing plant workers have high rates of injury and work in harsh conditions for low pay. The injury rate for workers in the average U.S. workplace has hovered at around three injuries per hundred workers in the past several years, but in the poultry industry injuries have increased by 20% in the last decade, with the final tally standing at 25 injuries per hundred workers, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Maryland poultry workers earned an average of $13,500 in 1990, about 75% of what other Eastern Shore workers earned. Twenty years ago, poultry workers earned 90% of what other area workers made.[xix]

Conditions are far from ideal for many of the workers employed by the labor industry, but structural factors inherent in a capitalist political economy, along with practical concerns, for the most part keep the labor force from striking or otherwise violently opposing the system. The laboring class, along with the state and the capitalist class that controls the means of production, is part of the growth coalition. Our country runs on the principles of equal opportunity and capitalism. Presumably, these two ideas combine to form an economic reality in which anyone can get ahead and improve their lot in life. Under this system, the people who own and control the means of production—in the case of the poultry industry, the processing plants that get the chicken off the farm and onto the dinner plate—get a bigger share of the profits than the farmers who grew the chickens, the truckers who carted them to the processing plants, or the workers who plucked, gutted, and packaged the flightless fowl.

Under our current economic system, these laborers will not receive the majority of the profits. Their only chance at getting more money is to produce more chickens. Producing more chickens in the same amount of time ensures constant economic growth, which is absolutely essential under a capitalist political economy. Growers take out bigger loans, which increases their potential profits but also their potential risk for debt and bankruptcy. Plant workers do more work in less time when the lines speed up. Working class people are concerned with short-term economic goals, such as having enough money for rent and affording healthcare for themselves and their families. Workers therefore participate in the growth coalition by going along with economic decisions like constantly increasing production, which serve their best interests in the short-term, but worsen their economic situation in the long-term.

Another factor that is at work in the case of unskilled laborers (such as those who work in poultry processing plants) is jobs blackmail. Workers fear that if they complain unduly about unsafe working conditions or unfair wages, the company will simply move south and they will be left unemployed. This is not an unreasonable concern; many companies like Tyson Foods have moved their processing facilities to southern states like North Carolina because the labor is cheaper and the environmental regulations are less stringent, both of which allow the company to produce the same product for a cheaper price[xx]. Perdue has a strong base in the Salisbury area, but it has recently purchased a large processing facility in Georgia. Some are concerned that the company will migrate south, leaving economic depression and unemployment on the Delmarva Peninsula.

As early as 1993, the media began to question the long-term viability of an industry that requires constantly increasing efficiency at all levels of its vertically coordinated system, and is providing fewer returns to growers and employees[xxi]. Chicken catchers and poultry processing plant workers have periodically attempted to unionize since the 1980’s; Frank Perdue was so determined to keep this from happening because of its potential to raise labor costs, he was recorded twice by the FBI in the 1980’s asking the Gambino crime family for help in fighting the unions.[xxii] Mr. Perdue has long since admitted that this was a mistake, but it shows the lengths to which poultry companies will go to keep production costs low in this competitive industry.  A prime example of the decreasing profits in the industry for chicken growers can be found in Bishopville, where Jean Bunting, the daughter of the famous Cecile Steele whose misinterpreted order for baby chicks gave birth to the billion dollar poultry industry that exists on the Eastern Shore today, continues a family legacy by raising chickens. Mrs. Bunting and her husband raise 65,000 chickens every seven weeks, a vast number compared to her mother’s first flock of 500. And yet for every 5,000 chickens that Bunting sold in 1993, she made less (in unadjusted dollars) than her mother made on that first flock in 1927. Hudson Foods, the company that the Buntings grow for, required that the Buntings buy thousands of dollars worth of new equipment to improve their barns or risk losing their contract. The Buntings made the improvements and retained the contract, but they now work other jobs in order to pay off the thousands of dollars in loans they took out while still supporting themselves. Mrs. Bunting teaches piano lessons, and Mr. Bunting drives a school bus. 

The State

The corporate class, represented by poultry giants like Perdue and Tyson, and the working class are two key components in the growth coalition, the structure that facilitates economic growth and expansion in a capitalist political economy. The third institution in this triumvirate is that of the state. The state refers to government at the local, state, and federal levels. In order to remain a viable and legitimate authoritative body, the state must ensure that it has enough money to operate with, and it must also maintain the support of the citizenry by serving, or appearing to serve, the needs of the people. The state is financed by taxes; the more money that is made, the more taxes they are able to collect. The existence and well-being of the state are therefore dependent on the growth of the economy, and it makes sense that the state often aligns itself with the interests of industry, sometimes at the expense of equally important but less profitable concerns such as public health, environmentalism, and workers’ rights. This is not to say that the state is a corrupt structure that does whatever industry bids it; in addition to financing itself, the state must also maintain the support of the people, or risk losing its legitimate authority to make and enforce laws. One sign of the state’s responsiveness to the people is the growing emphasis on legislation designed to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, despite the fact that this type of initiative is often unpopular with the food industry.

One way that the federal government shows its support for agribusinesses like the poultry industry is through a variety of agricultural subsidies. Permanent legislation that provides an ongoing framework for this federal aid began with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, introduced after the end of World War I and the Great Depression had dealt serious blows to farm incomes.[xxiii] The U.S. government only subsidizes selected crops and livestock. Crops like fruits and vegetables, for instance, do not usually fall under the purview of Farm Bill legislation. On the Eastern Shore, the main crops that are subsidized are corn, soybeans, and wheat.  Each year, the United States Departments of Agriculture (USDA), along with members of Congress, decides which crops to subsidize and what the parity levels should be for each of these products. For instance, in a given year the Farm Bill passed by Congress might set parity for corn at $2.10 per bushel. A farmer on the Eastern Shore who has planted 100 acres of corn will sell his corn for the best market price he can get once it is harvested. If there is a larger supply than demand for corn that season, however, the farmer may only be able to get $2.00 per bushel. After he has sold his corn, he takes his receipts to the local USDA Farm Service Agency and is reimbursed for the difference between what he would have made by selling his corn for $2.10 a bushel and what he actually made by selling it for $2.00 a bushel. The farmer also receives a small, guaranteed payment regardless of the price he gets for his crop in return for signing up for the USDA price support program. All agricultural subsidy programs under the Farm Bill are voluntary.[xxiv]

 In 1999, a total of $23.6 billion was paid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services.[xxv] In Wicomico County during the seven-year span between 1995 and 2002, total crop subsidies paid to farmers by the government equaled $13,905,741. The most heavily subsidized crop during this period was corn, accounting for over $5 million of the funds. Soybeans came in second at around $3.5 million. [xxvi]

Price supports (when Congress sets a parity level for a particular crop) and other failsafe measures provided by the state to farmers and food-processing corporations are crucial to the stability of the industry. Agriculture is an inherently risky business, with its supply at the mercy of unpredictable forces like the weather and diseases among livestock, and the demand for its products dependent on volatile foreign markets and fluctuating domestic ones. According to John Burtman, Director of the Wicomico and Worcester County USDA Farm Service Agency, recent increases in petroleum prices are worrying some local farmers and substantially increasing their costs of production because the lubrication and fuel used to run farm equipment like tractors and irrigation systems are petroleum based.  During a dry summer a couple of years ago, one farmer Mr. Burtman knows of in Wicomico County was having a 7,000 gallon tank of diesel delivered to his farm every ten days to keep his irrigation system running. If a dry summer and high petroleum prices were to coincide, a farmer like that would be hard-pressed to make a profit off of his crops.[xxvii] In addition to acting as a safety net in instances like that, the federal subsidy system plays a part in forging an economic reality that encourages ever-increasing crop production.[xxviii] If a farmer is guaranteed a certain price by way of a federal price support for every bushel of corn he grows, it makes sense to ramp up the use of fertilizer and plant corn on all the arable land he has access to so that he can have a better chance of making it in the business of agriculture. This relentless drive towards efficient and maximum agricultural production, as in the case of monoculture grain crops and the broiler industry here on the Eastern Shore, has deleterious effects on the environment and human health.

Mike Heller manages Clagett Farm in Maryland, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation property and working farm that is used as a model of sustainable agricultural practices. He sees the current agricultural subsidy program as a fatally flawed system, but one that cannot be jettisoned outright because so many of our nation’s farmers are dependent on it for their livelihood.[xxix] Heller explains that the problem with the Farm Bill system is that it was conceived in the 1930’s, when the world was a very different place, and has not been substantially overhauled since then despite sweeping systemic changes in the way the agricultural industry operates. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was one of the first pieces of the New Deal implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the late 1930’s. At that time, individual farms were diversified in that they usually produced both crops and livestock in a self-limiting, self-sustaining cycle. The manure that was produced by the animals on a given farm was used to fertilize the farm’s crops, which were then used to feed the livestock. The production of farms in a geographic area was limited by the amount of nutrients produced in that area. After World War II, however, the United States was left with the facilities to produce huge amounts of cheap nitrogen, and no munitions to use the nitrogen for. The affordable, readily available element was converted into agricultural fertilizer, thus fundamentally altering the formerly self-limiting nutrient balance in the world. The Agricultural Adjustment Act and its Farm Bill legacy were engineered in a time when there was not enough food to go around in this country, and now that the United States is the world’s largest exporter of food, these systems and policies do not make economic or environmental sense.[xxx] By encouraging over-production, markets become glutted, causing the prices of commodities to drop, and excessive fertilizer and pesticide use become standard practice, causing harm to the environment. 

The state must maintain popular support in addition to ensuring its own economic viability; it is the support of the people that directly and indirectly gives authority and legitimacy to the government. To this end, it is the state’s responsibility to respond to citizens concerns about the hazards posed by industry that negatively impact them and the environment. Recent funding initiatives by the USDA point to a possible alternative to traditional agricultural subsidies that also address environmental concerns. The 2002 Farm Bill provides funding that will allow farmers on the Delmarva peninsula to participate in three different programs that, according to USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, “…will help protect farmland and wildlife habitat, restore freshwater and tidal wetlands, as well as support the economic viability of agriculture in this region.” The programs are the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, a matching funds initiative that will keep agricultural land from being developed; the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, which provides technical and financial support to landowners who improve fish and wildlife habitat; and the Wetlands Reserve program that will help landowners to preserve and restore wetlands on their property.[xxxi]

These programs are all typical of the response of the state thus far to the demand that agricultural pollution be reduced. From a farmer’s perspective, they contain many flaws that may prevent him or her from implementing these innovations.[xxxii] First of all, participation in programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program is decided upon and ultimately benefits the landowner. On the Eastern Shore, approximately half of farmland is rented.[xxxiii] If the landowner does not decide to enroll in a conservation program, the farmer does not have much say in the matter. If the landowner does decide to participate, the farmer sees none of the benefits, but may have fewer acres to farm on a given piece of land, or not be able to farm the property at all if the owner decides to put it into a conservation easement, for example. There are other reasons that may deter farmers from participating in conservation programs even if they do own the land that they farm. Although cost-sharing and technical support programs make environmentally beneficial decisions economically feasible for more farmers, they are still taking a risk by taking part in these initiatives. A small loss of capital or production capacity can take years for a farming operation to recover from, because the profit margin is so low for agricultural commodities.[xxxiv]

Human Health

            Rachel Carson brought one of the central conflicts between human and environmental health and prevailing agricultural practices to light in her book Silent Spring. 35 years later, the use of the harmful pesticide DDT has been banned in the United States. Now, however, there are new concerns emerging about possible threats to human health caused by the way that broiler chickens are raised and processed.

            Modern chicken houses contain huge and hugely concentrated flocks of birds, and are a very high-stress environment for the animals. Antibiotics in the chicken feed prevent disease and fortify the chickens’ resistance to environmental stress, thus causing them to grow fatter in a shorter period of time and with less feed, all of which translates into higher profits. In August of 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that nations phase out the use of antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed. These low-dose growth promoters make up about half of the antibiotics administered to livestock; the other half are used to treat sick animals. The growth promoters are the type that concern public health experts, who maintain that their use leads to the growth of disease-resistant bacteria that compound the existing problem of super strains of various human illnesses that are proving resistant to the antibiotic arsenal of modern medicine caused by over prescription of antibiotics by the family doctor. In a WHO report that used the elimination of these low-dose growth promoter antibiotics in the hog and poultry industries in Denmark as a case study, the presence of resistant bacteria in meat was shown to drop dramatically after the elimination took effect.[xxxv]

            Even McDonald’s, a mammoth fast-food chain built on ever-larger servings of high-fat, high-calorie comestibles, has made a move to protect the health of those who consume its products. The corporation, which is one of the world’s largest purchasers of meat, announced in July of 2003 that it would ask its meat suppliers around the world to phase out the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in healthy animals and reduce the use of antibiotics among sick animals, citing growing evidence that antibiotic resistance in livestock is linked to antibiotic resistance in the humans who consume their flesh. [xxxvi] 

            Not everyone is convinced that phasing out growth promoters is economically feasible or an effective strategy against disease-resistant bacteria in humans. Dan Murphy, vice president of public affairs at the American Meat Institute, claims, “The real hot spot for the development of antibiotic resistance is in the hospital and the doctor’s office, where antibiotics are overused and resistance is clearly growing. What might be coming from the farm is minor in comparison.”[xxxvii] As far as the economic impact of eliminating these hormones, in the case of Denmark the cost of hog production rose by about 1 percent. Regardless of the validity of the science and the potential for economic woes among meat producers, it is clear that public opinion is holding sway on this issue, and fighting to keep using current levels of antibiotic growth producers is a losing battle.

Wicomico County: Theory vs. Reality

Two aspects of agriculture in Wicomico County are clear. First, this area has historically been a periphery, from its days as a tobacco-producing British colony to the current importance of the poultry industry. Second, Wicomico County is taking on an increasing number of metropolitan characteristics, including population growth and an increasing awareness on the part of its citizens and the state that environmental degradation caused by agricultural pollution, like the poor water quality linked to runoff of chicken manure and fertilizer, must be addressed. These developments have been paralleled by a decrease in the amount of farmland and the number of residents who are full-time farmers.

In order to make sense of these trends and to interpret them in a way that places Wicomico County in a national and global context, it is crucial to use some sort of theoretical framework, such as the concept of agricultural metropolises and peripheries. As with most theories, however, this one does not fully explain the reality of a local situation such as agriculture in Wicomico County. Wicomico does not fit neatly into either the metropolis or periphery category, and it likely never will. This area is most certainly a periphery in the case of poultry; hundreds of millions of birds are grown, processed, and packaged here each year and then shipped all over the world. But residents of Wicomico County can also drive up Route 13 to Wal-Mart and buy a shirt made from cotton that was grown in India, and then pieced together into a garment in China before being shipped here. In that case, Salisbury and Wicomico County are the metropolis, the destination for pre-made goods grown and manufactured in far-away places. This blurred and indistinct boundary between metropolis and periphery is a reflection of the national milieu. The United States is one of the most industrialized, technologically advanced nations in the world, displaying clear characteristics of a metropolitan entity. And yet it is the world’s largest exporter of food, placing it simultaneously in a peripheral role.

Similarly, the theory of political economy provides useful categories and concepts to organize information and view local events as part of a bigger picture, but it does not account for every interaction between the state, the corporate classes, and the labor force in Wicomico County. According to the power dynamics laid out in political economic theory, for instance, one would never predict the move by McDonalds, a mega-corporation traditionally motivated more by profit than by public health concerns, to pressure meat producers to reduce the use of antibiotics in healthy animals that speed their growth.

The failure of these theories to match up precisely with local events and trends is not grounds for dismissing them as useless. On the contrary, without broad frameworks like political economy and the metropolis/periphery concept, local history would be simply a litany of facts devoid of larger meaning and connections to the big picture. It is therefore important to use economic and social theories whenever possible to provide a context for historical narratives, but equally crucial is the awareness of the limitations of this method of analysis.

 A definitive prediction about where agriculture is headed in Wicomico County is beyond the scope of this report examining agriculture in Wicomico County from 1880 until the present. Rather, we have attempted to provide a history of developments in food and livestock production in this area, paying special attention to the major transitions in types of farming and processing and the reasons behind these shifts. By doing this and by giving a sense of how Wicomico County is situated in a national and global agricultural context, we hope that readers will come away with an idea of the potential for change in Wicomico County and the ability to make informed guesses of their own about the future of this unique piece of land and the people who make their living from it.

[i] Paul Adams. “Russia Continues to Shun Birds From Some U.S. Poultry Plants.” The Baltimore Sun, July 12, 2003: 8C.

[ii] Adams, p. 8C.

[iii] Douglas Birch. “Imports of U.S. Chicken Have Russians Stewing.” The Baltimore Sun, January 26, 2004: 1A.

[iv] Adams, p. 8C. 

[v] “Vertical Coordination in the Pork and Broiler Industries”. USDA Economic Research Service, p. 21.

[vi] William Cronon. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. (New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1991): xvi. 

[vii]Marc Kaufman. “WHO Urges End to Use of Antibiotics for Animal Growth.” The Washington Post August 13, 2003: A1.

David Barboza and Sherri Day. “McDonald’s Seeking Cut in Antibiotics in Its Meat.” The New York Times, June 20, 2003: C1.

[viii] Heather Dewar and John Rivera. “Poultry Workers Find Their Voice.” The Baltimore Sun, February 2, 1998: 1B.

[ix] U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Estimates for Selected Counties, 1900-1980” on April 20, 2004.

[x] U.S. Census Bureau, “Labor Force Status and Employment Characteristics: 1990” on April 10, 2004.

[xi] U.S. Census Bureau, “Labor Force Status and Employment Characteristics: 2000” on April 10, 2004.

[xii] Tom Horton. “On The Bay”. The Baltimore Sun, March 17, 2002: B2.

[xiii] Interview with Doug Stephens, a realtor with Cooper-Stewart in Salisbury, via e-mail on May 3, 2004. Interview on file at the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

[xiv] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Pfiesteria Piscicida Fact Sheet” on April 19, 2004.

[xv] Tom Horton. Turning the Tide. (Washington: Island Press, 2003): 47.

[xvi] Horton, Turning the Tide, p. 47.

[xvii] Broilers Grown, Soybeans Used for Broilers, and Corn Used for Broilers  provided by Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. Delmarva Soybeans Grown and Delmarva Corn Grown provided by USDA’s  National Agricultural Statistics Service. Table Prepared By: Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. April 16, 2004.

[xviii] USDA Economic Research Service. “Table 2: Average Monthly Retail Price for Beef, Pork, and Poultry, September ’03-February ’04,” on April 16 2004.

[xix] Kim Clark. “Tender Times: Is sky falling on the chicken boom? Disquiet hits Shore’s Biggest Industry,” The Baltimore Sun July 4, 1993: 1F.

[xx] Doug Struck. “South’s poultry plants thrive, feeding on workers’ need,” The Baltimore Sun. September 8, 1991: 1A.

[xxi] Clark. “Tender Times: Is sky falling on the chicken boom? Disquiet hits Shore’s Biggest Industry,” The Baltimore Sun July 4, 1993: 1F.

[xxii] Paul Cunningham. “Frank Perdue Admits Seeking Advice from Mob,” The Daily Times March 4, 1986: 1A.

[xxiii] Geoffrey Becker, ed. “Farm Commodity Legislation: Chronology, 1933-1998”, CRS Report for Congress, on , April 12 2004.

[xxiv] Interview with John Burtman, County Executive Director for Dorchester and Wicomico County USDA Farm Service Agency: May 13, 2004. Interview on file at the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

[xxv] Congressional Research Service, “USDA Gross Outlays for FY 1999”. On , April 12 2004.


[xxvii] Interview with John Burtman, County Executive Director for Dorchester and Wicomico County USDA Farm Service Agency: May 13, 2004. Interview on file at the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

[xxviii] Horton, p. 67.

[xxix] Interview with Mike Heller, manager of Clagett Farm for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Interview conducted over the phone on May 17, 2004; tape of conversation on file at the Edward H. Nabb Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

[xxx] Interview with Mike Heller

[xxxi] Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. “USDA to provide $5 million for Delmarva Conservation Programs”. Bay Journal 14 no. 2 (April 2004): 6.

[xxxii] The Scientific and Technical advisory Committee (STAC) of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  “Innovation in Agricultural Conservation for the Chesapeake Bay: Evaluating Progress and Addressing Future Challenges”. February 2004: p. 18.

[xxxiii] Interview with Mike Heller.

[xxxiv] STAC. “Innovation in Agricultural Conservation,” p. 18.

[xxxv] Marc Kaufman. “WHO Urges End to Use of Antibiotics for Animal Growth.” The Washington Post, August 13, 2003: A1.

[xxxvi] David Barboza and Sherri Day. The New York Times, June 20, 2003: C1.

[xxxvii] Kaufman. “WHO Urges End to Use of Antibiotics for Animal Growth.”