Chapter Seven

Salisbury, Maryland – A University, a River, and a Chicken Factory

Jessica Blewitt

            Occasionally a person walking across the campus of Salisbury University may look up and see the school’s mascot, a seagull, gliding overhead.  Salisbury, located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is close enough to the ocean to make the gull an appropriate symbol.  “Sammy the Seagull” can be seen displayed on school shirts, jackets, and even a few of the older canoes that belong to the athletic department.  But some people have jokingly remarked that another kind of bird might be more suited to represent the area where the school is located.  That bird is the chicken. 

            The chicken may not strike terror into the hearts of opposing team members, but it has been dubbed the bird that “lays the golden egg” [1] for agricultural business in the tri-state area of Delmarva.  The poultry industry has had an enormous impact on regional economy, and consequently on the university as well.  Frank Perdue, possibly the most recognizable man in the chicken industry, not only has a processing plant and a minor league baseball stadium named after him, but the University’s school of business as well.  The Eastern Shore pioneered the development of the poultry industry, and Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia still rank within the top ten states for highest chicken production. [2]   The close proximity to water makes the Eastern Shore a perfect place for the existence of a “wet industry,” [3] which is how processing plants are classified.  They require enormous amounts of water, mostly for cleaning purposes. 

            Flowing past both the university and one of Perdue’s processing plants is the Wicomico River.  In Salisbury, citizens are lucky to have the river nearby – for some, it even flows through their backyards.  Living close to a source of water is a luxury coveted by most people.  Author and longtime Eastern Shore resident Tom Horton stated, “The many uses and seductions of the edge, where land meets water, draw people so powerfully that nearly half the planet’s population has settled on 5 percent of its land mass – the 5 percent that is mostly adjacent to coastlines.” [4]   The water draws people to it, yet most of them take it for granted. Convenient modern facilities that provide clean running water, and sewage systems that flush water away to be sanitized through chemical treatments, remove the problem of water pollution from most American homes.  At the same time, these facilities create a barrier that divides our daily lives from water in its natural state: rivers, lakes, and oceans.  

            Today, few people would picture the Wicomico River as a convenient place to take a drink, but hundreds of years ago, neighboring villages of Native Americans depended on it as a source of fresh water.  However, with the arrival of Europeans, the amount of people living on the river’s banks increased, and therefore its level of cleanliness decreased.  Even so, over the years, the Wicomico River has provided many things for the people who live around it.  Fish and oysters provided a source of food and income.  Recreationally, the river and its connecting ponds were a popular place for swimming and boating.  It functioned as one of the first highways, bringing supplies to the growing town of Salisbury.  Industries imported goods needed for the various businesses on huge barges.  The river’s current powered lumber and grain mills, and was also used as a power source to generate electricity.  However, the river also became a dumping area for the waste created by both industry and individuals.  Today, signs warn against the dangers of fishing or swimming in the water.  Boating is a very popular activity, and barges still head toward the Port of Salisbury, but the oil leaked from hundreds of engines has left a scummy residue on the surface of the river.  The visible pollution is only one aspect of the river’s infection.  Pollution caused by nutrient runoff from farms cannot be seen, but is just as harmful, and possibly more so. 

            The Eastern Shore has long been home to thriving agricultural business, and over time, those businesses have gone through many changes.  Over the past century, the poultry industry has been a leader of the agricultural business.  From its humble beginnings on a small farm in Delaware, the business moved swiftly to the top of the pecking order of the Delmarva economy.  The chicken industry created thousands of jobs, and it is worth billions of dollars.  In order to get an inside look at how the industry operates, I arranged to take a tour through the local processing plant.  On the morning of the tour, I met David Inman, environmental manager for Perdue Farms, Inc., who also served as my tour guide. 

 “You’re going to see some things today, and smell some smells that you’re not going to want to see and smell,” he began. “But remember, it’s all a part of the business.” [5]

            These words, whispered in American ears for decades, or even centuries, embody our capitalist priorities.  They seduce the listener into accepting an ethical standard where the end justifies the means, allowing those who are privileged enough to enjoy the end benefits to disregard the struggles of those who were involved with the means.  Those same words seem to justify staggering amounts of pollution, the means by which industry is able to thrive.  People simply shrug their shoulders and look away from the mess because “Pollution … [is] the price of progress.” [6]   However, holding that attitude means that the costs of pollution, “harm done to the commons and public health,” [7] are ignored.  Monetary profit obscures the negative side affects.

These thoughts ran through my head as I passed through the revolving gate into the processing plant’s restricted area.  My impulse told me to continue spinning through that gate until I passed through on the other side, released back into the safety of the parking lot.  Just the noise coming from the plant was overwhelming, never mind what we would see or smell.  The huge machines clanking and whirring inside the buildings were almost deafening, and caused Mr. Inman to shout. I still lost about half of his words, but I turned to look at what he was describing anyway. 

Ahead was the loading area, where thousands of chickens huddled in plastic crates stacked on huge trucks.  The crates were not tall enough to allow the chickens to stand, and so they sat, close together, because there is no room to move.  Underneath one of the trucks, “a part of the business” was wandering around.  One of the hens had escaped her crate, and was taking a few tentative steps around the parking lot.  Although she seemed lucky, narrowly missing the death promised by the interior of the plant, in reality she would be left out there to starve or be crushed by the wheels of one of the trucks.  Industry regulations prohibit the slaughter of a “downer” so the workers ignored the hen and continued with their jobs.  On a more positive note, Mr. Inman added that occasionally a worker will take a downed chicken home, keep it as a pet and feed it dog food.  But the implication remained: not every chicken is so lucky. 

            Fifty years ago, a plant like this would not have existed.  The poultry industry was just trying out its wings, so to speak, and only beginning to expand beyond small, family owned farms.  Soon the industry would swell to occupy a prominent place in Corporate America.  Delaware and the Eastern Shore regions of Maryland and Virginia comprise a large part of the poultry industry (which is surprising, considering the comparatively small size of the states). The plants use an incredible amount of water to clean the eviscerated chickens.  That water must be treated before it is released, but there is always a danger that some will escape, still carrying heavy loads of pollutants.  It is true that in recent years, processing plants have made many efforts to improve the quality of the water that is released.  But the history of the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore is closely linked to the history of pollution found in regional waters. 

            The poultry industry has had a profound influence on regional economy, but its benefits cannot completely obscure the scars it has left on both the land and the water.  Chickens and processing plants create an enormous amount of waste, and often, people are willing to accept that waste as an unavoidable drawback.  A profitable industry is given a lot of leeway regarding the environment, because a healthy economy is often more attractive than a healthy ecology. However, as a downside of progress, countless pollutants have leaked into the Wicomico River.  Silently, the river has become a victim of the industry’s rapid growth. 


The Fledging Industry: The First Appearance of Poultry in Delmarva

Poultry traveled to America along with the Pilgrims and Puritans, but those birds were released into the countryside and allowed to roam freely.  Usually the local inhabitants did not hunt chickens for food, because the tough meat was only suitable for stews or soups. [8]   It was not until hundreds of years later, after the Civil War that another purpose for raising chickens became popular – poultry showing.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American Poultry Association began holding contests in which judges rated chickens based on their coloration and beauty. [9]    Participants shipped their diverse breeds of birds to the shows from all over the country. 

In 1959, the Salisbury Daily Times interviewed Melvin F. Uphoff, an Eastern Shore resident who was one of the premier breeders of show birds in the early 1900s.  Uphoff expressed his disappointment in the ever-increasing popularity of the broiler industry.  He had once shipped his prized Golden Laced Wyandottes in special crates over railways, which were judged in fairs in Madison Square Gardens.  The valuable roosters were worth between fifty and seventy-five dollars, while eggs sold for a dollar a piece.  He had served as an official judge at several competitions, and had even held a position as a professor at the American Poultry School in Leavenworth, Kansas. [10]   It was not long before poultry shows were a part of the past. 

Chickens that were not destined for competition in the prestigious shows were usually egg producers.  Although “white meat” has become a favorite American meal, in those days chicken rarely made it to the table as a main course.  It was only after a hen had passed her egg-producing prime that any danger of the stewpot existed. [11]   Farmers rarely raised over a hundred birds at a time, because there was no need to own that many birds.  Hens could lay eggs for several years, and the family usually consumed the eggs themselves.

            However, in 1923, everything that the Eastern Shore knew about raising chickens changed completely.  On a little farm in Ocean View, Delaware, a farmer’s wife decided to try something different.  In that year, according to the Delaware Hall of Records, Mrs. Wilmer Steele

            “started a brood of 500 chicks in connection with her laying flock.  When the birds reached an average weight of two pounds, it is reported she sold the surviving 387 birds for 62 cents per pound live weight.  The next year she started with 10,000 chicks and by 1926 had a capacity for approximately 10,000 broilers.  Soon they were raising 25,000 chickens to sell young for meat rather than to keep for egg production.” [12]


Selling young chickens for meat was not an entirely original idea, but previously it had existed only as an offshoot of the egg business.  Since male chickens did not lay eggs, they could be slaughtered young and sold as “squabs,” usually at a weight of about ¾ lb. [13]   However, no one raised male chickens in large quantities solely for the purpose of selling them for meat. What Mrs. Steele began during the 1920s had a huge impact on the American diet.  Previously, only small hatcheries existed, but suddenly, broiler houses began sprouting up all over.  Farmers began to raise chickens by the thousands, and the taste for white meat grew.  By the later 1920s, chickens came in two sizes; “broilers,” which weighed one to two pounds, and “fryers” which weighed three to four pounds. [14]   The young, tender meat was excellent for cooking in a variety of ways, and the amount of new recipes increased. [15]    Chicken soon became readily available at most markets, because the meat was cheap and easy to produce.  Cities along the east coast demanded higher amounts of chicken meat from the Eastern Shore. 

            Once it became clear how easy it was to raise birds to make cash in the meat market, it also became apparent that the age of the poultry show was over.  Swept aside by the tidal wave of the new industry, Uphoff and others who had devoted themselves to the artistry of carefully bred chickens could only watch their profession fade away. [16]   The popularity of raising birds for show dwindled and died, and with it went much of the breed diversity that had existed.  Meatier, faster growing chickens were now the goal.  Mrs. Steele’s original flocks were Barred Rock, but by the 1940s growers preferred the crossbred Columbia Rock-New Hampshire chicken.  By the 1980s, an efficient white-feathered chicken, derived from several breeds, became the favorite of the poultry industry. [17] Other aspects of agriculture felt the effects of the new industry.  Young chickens require a lot of feed, and so the demand for corn increased.  Feed mills began to spring up to mix the grains into “grower mash,” a combination of corn meal, wheat bran, middlings, ground oats, and meat scraps. [18]

As the demand for chicken dinners continued to spread to metropolitan areas, it was obvious that “large processing plants to slaughter and dress birds destined for big city markets” [19] were needed.  Conveniently, the Delmarva area was already equipped with many tomato processing plants built for use by the canning industry.  Many of them, abandoned due to financial troubles during the Depression, had stood empty since the 1930s. [20]   Poultry companies pounced on the empty plants, because it was easy to convert them into chicken processing plants.  Integration of the industry was a new goal; the more individual parts of the process one company could control, the greater their profits would be.  With each innovation, the broiler industry became more efficient, and swelled to occupy a larger part of the region’s economy. 


Frank Perdue Makes Chicken His Business

            As a young man, Franklin Perdue worked alongside his father in the family hatchery business in Salisbury. [21]   In 1939, Frank joined his father as an associate in the firm, which consisted of three associates, 3,000 hens, and brought in a yearly revenue of approximately $26,000. [22]   Within five years, he became a full partner. [23] Over the next few years, Frank Perdue transformed the hatchery into a broiler farm.  He realized that the meat market was more lucrative than the egg business.  His efforts were well inspired, because the firm continued to grow steadily both in size and profit.  In 1950, Frank became head of the company. [24]   In 1952, Perdue expanded to include its own feed business, [25] and in 1968, the firm bought the old Swift & Co. Processing Plant, which still stands close to what is now Rt. 50.  The plant was renovated and renamed after Perdue.  The increasing integration meant that the company was operating hatcheries, feed mills, grain factories, hatching egg production, broiler grow out, processing plants, marketing, and finance. [26]   Individual farmers signed contracts with the large company, raising the birds for processing. [27]   The company would supply chicks and feed, while the farmer was responsible for creating adequate shelter and water, and disposing of waste created by the chickens.  This bargain saddled the individual farmers with the most polluting part of the industry, disposing the waste created by the chickens.  Efforts have been made to shift this responsibility to the poultry companies, but as yet, these efforts have not met with complete success.  In any case, the expansion and integration of the company was an indication of how powerful the broiler industry of the Eastern Shore had become.  No longer just a part of family life, the industry had risen to fill a place beside other corporations in America, striving to become bigger, better and more profitable. 

The industry became increasingly efficient.  A magazine published by Perdue in 1976 boasted about the company’s progress.  Huge trucks transported the chickens from local farms, and in only 75 minutes, those same birds were processed and ready for sale. [28]   By-products plants were constructed that could use “feathers and offal from 600,000 birds each day in a continuous system that produces high quality feather meal, poultry meal, and poultry fat.” [29]   The emphasis on efficiency even extends to the birds themselves, as is indicated by a small chart found on the last page of the publication: 

2 lb. grain = 1 lb. chicken (live)

4 lb. grain = 1 lb. pork (live)

8 lb. grain = 1 lb. beef (live) [30]


Chicken had become a valuable commodity; each bird was also a dollar sign.  

            In the 1970s, Perdue began the sales pitch that would make him famous.  On radio and TV broadcasts, Frank’s voice proclaimed, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” [31]   The success of his advertisements proved that “fresh chicken can be identified by a brand name.” [32]   By 1976, the Perdue Company produced nearly three percent of all the chicken sold in the U.S., and was the dominant supplier of chicken to the New York market, [33] along with most parts of the northeastern United States.  It had tripled its market in only five years following the ad campaign, with sales reaching over $179 million in fiscal 1976. [34]   The family owned business that had begun as a small hatchery near the beginning of the century expanded to become a household name in just a few decades.  Perdue as a company grew 17% in five years, in an industry that averages only 1% growth per year. [35]   The incredible profit led Frank Perdue to give back to the community where he grew up.  However, rapid industrial growth typically leads to rapid ecological decline, and the Wicomico River, among other Chesapeake Bay tributaries, bore the brunt of the industry’s assault. 


The Delmarva Poultry Industry: Over 50 Years of Growth

            The economy of the Delmarva Peninsula is heavily dependent on the revenue produced by the broiler industry.  Thousands of jobs, from broiler growers and processing plant workers to executives and business managers exist because of the industry. [36]   Commerce in the area has always been highly dependent on agriculture, and poultry is a large component of that business.  Because of the rapid growth of the broiler industry all along the Eastern Shore, the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., was formed in 1948 as a non-profit association of local growers and businessmen. [37]   The group still functions to support the local industry.  Every year the association holds a convention, which gives people in the poultry business an opportunity to share their knowledge of the industry.  Today the 2,500 growers of the Eastern Shore raise more than 600 million birds annually. [38]  

Chicken as a food source has become a growing trend.  Between 1975 and 2000, yearly consumption of chicken increased by nearly forty pounds per American, while beef intake dropped by about thirty pounds in the same amount of time. [39]   White meat, seductively advertised as a leaner, healthier source of protein, has swelled in popularity.  Demand for chicken meat in cities continued to rise, and the birds found their way into the bellies of millions of Americans. 

            With every year, the poultry industry was booming.  Selective breeding ensured that chickens would gain weight quickly, meaning that they needed less feed before growing to slaughter weight.  In 1961, farmers were raising chickens that needed half as much time and money to grow to selling weight as those grown thirty years earlier. [40]   In 1963, the Baltimore Sun boasted that the Delmarva Peninsula could produce “more meat out of less feed in a shorter time” [41] than was ever possible before. Market prices stayed low, which contributed to white meat’s enduring popularity. 

            In 1967, the poultry industry was already thriving and influencing a huge amount of the regional economy.  The amount of feed bought to grow the birds cost $126 million annually.  Surprisingly, the industry payroll was less than half that figure, totaling only $59 million per year.  The industry had already created nearly 11,000 jobs, and that was only an account of those employed directly by poultry farms and processing plants. [42]   When taking into account all the aspects of the industry’s needs, the influence becomes remarkable.  Everything from electric and telephone companies to the postal service and water treatment plants felt the effects of the industry’s powerful reach. [43] In the year 2000, the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., reported its annual broiler production as 616,259,000 birds, with a yield of 3,343,242,000 pounds produced.  With numbers so high, the chicken population of the region greatly outnumbers humans.  The value of the broilers in 2000 was $1,362,417,600. [44]   On the Delmarva Poultry Inc. website, the regional profits are not the only thing emphasized; they also remind the consumer that “Each job in the poultry processing industry creates 7.2 jobs elsewhere.” The presence of chickens on the Eastern Shore has grown remarkably. 

            As the birthplace of the broiler industry, the Eastern Shore has always been a strong influence on the national market for chicken.  In the year 2000, Wicomico County ranked tenth among all counties in the nation for chicken production, and it is first among the counties in Maryland. Chickens continue to mean big business, and the dollar signs will not disappear anytime soon. 


Is America’s Favorite “Cheap Meat” Costing the River Too Much?

            Fast growing poultry need a lot of water to sustain rapid weight gain.  Nine to ten gallons of water are required per bird each week, and by 1979, Delmarva chickens were already guzzling four billion gallons of water per year. [45]   Yet water is required for much more than simply quenching the thirst of millions of birds.  Processing plants are much thirstier than the birds themselves will ever be.  As of 1999, the Delmarva plants swallowed an incredible twelve million gallons of water per day, washing away the waste left after processing the meat. [46]   That means that altogether, the processing plants in the tristate region use over four billion gallons of water every year.  And when wastewater treatment facilities are not up to par, what suffers is the health of regional waters.  

            Only one processing plant in Salisbury is actually adjacent to the Wicomico River, which is the Rt. 50 Perdue processing plant.  John Chlada, Director of Environmental Services of the plant, is adamant about the plant’s efforts to keep wastewater from entering the river.  He emphasizes the fact that the plant does not discharge water directly into the river.  Instead, water is treated in a facility that is part of the plant itself; this facility removes sold wastes, oils, and fats from the water, and adjusts the pH levels of the water.  Also, since the sewage system in Salisbury is a combined system, it treats both sewage and storm water.  The plant’s treatment center has a system that captures storm water during heavy rains.  During the first fifteen minutes of a storm, water runoff from parking lots and driveways enters the plant’s facility to be treated. [47]

The water, next treated by the city system, then is released back into the Wicomico River. [48] The Perdue plant in Salisbury alone uses over 1.3 million gallons of water in a single day, [49] and contributes over a third of the total amount of water treated by the city plant.  Therefore, the public plant treats waste from the processing plant, which translates into a bill that is paid by taxpayers, and not solely the poultry company. [50]

             However, the treatment system is not fail-proof, and occasionally accidental overflow occurs.  The city of Salisbury notified the plant in 1999 for allowing “excursions” of untreated water out of its treatment facility. This water was not released directly into the Wicomico River.  It was still sent to the city’s Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP).  However, when the pH levels of the water sent out of the plant are not correct, the WWTP must clean that water more extensively.  A more extensive treatment again amounts to more of the taxpayers’ money funding the treatment of industrial waste.

            The city of Salisbury, according to its ordinances in conjunction with pollution permits, does not have the power to issue fines to offending industries.  Instead, a Notice of Violation (NOV) warns the Perdue wastewater treatment facility that their levels are not up to par.  When the plant receives several notices, the city has the power to shut down the factory wastewater facility, thereby shutting down the factory itself. The facility, classified as operating with “significant noncompliance,” [51] becomes an official source of problems for the WWTP.  In 1999, the plant continued to operate and workers were not taking corrective action.  The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) became involved, and did a series of inspections of the plant and wastewater facility.  The MDE assessed a fine of over $40,000, which the company paid to the city of Salisbury. [52]

The plant has specific levels that it must uphold to keep the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) of the water, which means that it must contain enough oxygen to be able to support life.  When the BOD is not sufficient, aquatic plants die and fish flee the affected area.  In addition to the fine, the plant upgraded its existing treatment facility to better cope with large amounts of wastewater. Since then, the company has made more improvements and renovations to the plant. [53] However, wastes from the plant were a problem even before the MDE issued fines.  According to EPA records, the plant committed another 36 violations of its permit between December of 1998 and April of 1999. [54]

Treatment plants are expensive to renovate, and so sometimes processing plants may continue to operate, regardless of the fact that the wastewater cannot receive sufficient treatment. [55] Wastes found in the water include ammonia, which can be toxic to trout and crustacea, and may inhibit the reproductive abilities of fish. [56]   However, most fish will sense the high levels of pollution and simply leave the area that is affected.  High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus also damage the water, depriving it of oxygen and essentially choking it to death. [57]

Ammonia, phosphorus, and nitrogen are not the only pollutants contaminating the water used by processing plants.  Most of the water is used to clean the slaughtered birds after evisceration, and so the waste consists of “mostly blood and parts of the intestines after the chicken has been gutted.” [58]   When untreated water enters the river, the effects are obvious, and repellant.  Residents of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, whose Parker Creek is close to Perdue’s Accomac processing plant, complained of “an offensive odor” and “a greasy reddish stain on our boats.” [59] Citizens demanded a public hearing when Perdue’s permit came up for renewal, and the company agreed to upgrade its plant. [60]   The company made changes because the people of the area felt strongly enough about the quality of the river to express their concerns about its health.  When the citizens demanded action, the industry obeyed. 

            Although industries may continually upgrade their existing systems, another factor in the growing problem with pollution is that the chicken industry continues to grow at an incredible rate.  According to an article in an August 1999 issue of the Washington Post, “Although the individual gallon of waste water leaving chicken slaughterhouses is, in most cases, cleaner than a decade ago, some plants now move so much more meat that their total pollution has climbed.” [61]   The amount of chickens processed each day has skyrocketed, and therefore, so has the amount of waste produced.  The Salisbury plant’s total nitrogen discharges between 1995 and 1997 actually doubled. [62]   The quantity of chickens being processed had increased, and so with it increased the amount of nutrient waste.  When the plant’s water treatment facility failed to respond to any of the notices of violation sent by the city, state and federal government agencies had to become involved.  The EPA discovered that the plant had violated its permit 65 times between those years, yet the plant had not responded to violation notices sent by the city. [63]   In 1999, after the MDE stepped in and demanded that improvements be made to the existing system, the company had to comply.  Extensive changes were made to the existing system.  A computer now monitors all operations in the treatment facility, and can be used to check the pH levels of the water, as well as the amounts of chemicals being used during the process.  Because of the lack of communication between certain employees in the treatment facility and the upper management, there were also some extensive changes in personnel.  After all of these improvements were made, there was a noticeable improvement in the plant’s operation.  The plant has received only four notices of violation in the past three years. [64]   With enough prompting, industries can be forced to take notice of the damages they inflict on the environment, and remedy those damages.  Unfortunately, finding a remedy is not always easy. 

            However, not all the waste in the river comes from the processing plants.  In fact, out of all the aspects of the poultry industry, the major contributor toward the unhealthy state of the river is runoff of chicken manure.  Some of this comes from the broiler houses.  The biggest source of runoff, though, is crop fields that have been over fertilized.  In a seemingly co-beneficial relationship, broiler growers contribute manure from their chickens, which fertilizes the fields that produce the crops that the next flock will eat. [65]   Recycling manure appears to be a more natural, even healthy choice of fertilizer than harsh chemicals, but there are still many drawbacks.  The manure contains heavy amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus that seep into the river as runoff. Also, because the chickens produce so much manure, the tendency is for farmers to spread more heavily than is necessary for the soil.  The nutrients cannot all be absorbed, and so they are washed away. 

In most cases, farmers do not test their soil to determine how much fertilizer is actually necessary.  Because the soil on the Eastern Shore is often sandy, the nutrients seep directly into the water with very little filtration. [66]   When too much fertilizer is used, the excess washes into the river during periods of heavy rainfall.  The Baltimore Sun interviewed a lifelong poultry farmer named Lewis Riley in 1997, about his results from testing his soil before applying fertilizer.  He remarked, “The nutrient management plan showed that in some areas we didn’t need any nitrogen.  In some we needed 55 pounds per acre, and in some 30 pounds.  It used to be automatic that we applied 140 pounds per acre.” [67]   Unfortunately, many farmers still do not test their soil before application, and continue to rely on their old habits, the result being over fertilization. When a plan for nutrient use is not implemented, the result is often unbalanced levels of fertilizer entering the soil, and subsequently, the water sources.  Regulations about waste management and nutrient use exist, and yet the government very rarely steps in to enforce them.  Instead, the various plants as well as the individual growers operate along the lines of a kind of honor system in which they will regulate and report levels of nutrient waste. [68]   The lack of enforcement regarding fertilizer use has crippled the river. 

However, stricter regulation of manure application has recently become a more important issue.  The reason was discovered to be a tiny dinoflagellate known as pfiesteria.  These organisms have been linked to serious health problems, noticed especially in fishermen who had caught or been exposed to infected fish.  Included among the symptoms were short-term memory loss, mood swings, and a rash on the skin. [69]   While searching for the cause of these symptoms, scientists studied the surrounding bodies of water to find a correlation between what was in the water and what was killing the fish.  They discovered that the outbreaks usually occurred in close proximity to animal processing plants. [70]   Reports of pfiesteria blooms in the Pocomoke River, located south of Salisbury and the Wicomico River, led the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to point a finger at the poultry industry. [71]   The Delmarva Poultry Industry, understandably, became defensive.  The association’s president, Kay Richardson, tried to divert interest away from the speculative evidence held by the Bay Foundation and the Citizens’ Pfiesteria Action Commission, and bring attention back to the concrete impact that any negative change in the industry would have on the local economy.  She stated that even a four percent decline in chicken production over one year would result in the staggering loss of $74 million in economic output for the Delmarva region. [72]   The animosity between opposing factions inhibited corrective action from taking place. 

Gov. Parris Glendening appointed the Citizen’s Commission on September 15, 1997, to research the outbreaks of pfiesteria on the Eastern Shore, and to determine what course of action should be taken.  Their findings concluded that an overabundance of nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, were responsible for the outbreaks.  In response to these findings, Gov. Glendening developed the Water Quality Improvement Act, which he introduced to the Maryland Senate on January 21, 1998.  The bill was controversial, especially in the agricultural business, because it “included mandatory nitrogen- and phosphorus-based nutrient management plans to be developed by 2000 and implemented by 2002.” [73]   Farmers were required to implement a plan for the regulation of nutrient waste, that is, a system of disposal that is environmentally friendly, if their operation has an annual income greater than $2,500, or if they own more than eight animal units, with one unit equaling 1,000 lb live weight. [74]   In other words, practically every agricultural operation in Maryland will fall under the act’s jurisdiction.   The Maryland General Assembly passed the Water Quality Improvement Act in 1998, making all of the proposed regulatory measures mandatory. [75]   

Even before the bill’s acceptance, farmers were encouraged to create and follow a management plan regulating nutrient use.  However, the extent to which farmers actually followed these plans was questionable.  Developing a plan for nutrient use can be nothing more than an idealistic hope if the farmer does not have the financial resources to put that plan into use.  Most broiler growers are under contract from one of the huge poultry companies. [76] Although this type of relationship ensures the grower a more stable source of income, it also has its drawbacks. In a business that has slim profit margins, the cost of regulating and properly managing manure use is a luxury that most individual growers cannot afford. [77] The large companies exert a high level of control over the growers, but they refuse responsibility for the wastes created by chickens in private broiler houses.  Instead, the individual farmer is given the expensive task of disposing of manure.  However, these companies are the ones with the resources necessary to control waste in an effective way. [78]   They have the economic means to transport and dispose of chicken manure. 

In an effort to provide aid to farmers without the necessary means to dispose of animal wastes, the Water Quality Improvement Act also included a “poultry litter transport program.” [79]   Funds from the program can offset the cost of transportation and handling of poultry litter, up to $20 per ton, from broiler growers with excess.  Another portion of the act will match broiler growers with a nearby farmer who is in need of nutrients to fertilize crops.  Although any poultry farmer in Maryland may participate in the program, the Lower Eastern Shore came under special attention because of its high concentration of poultry growers.  The goal of the program is to remove twenty percent of the poultry litter produced by the four counties of the Lower Eastern Shore, including Wicomico County. [80]   However, the funds for the transport project are not provided by the state of Maryland (and its taxpayers) alone.  An important stipulation requires that poultry processing companies must actually provide part of the funds needed for the project.  According to the act, “The State and poultry processors are each expected to provide $750,000 for this project in fiscal year 1999.” [81]   With the influence of state government, it is possible that a cleaner river will someday wind its way through Salisbury. 


Smarter Industry . . . Cleaner River

Although it is difficult to attain a satisfactory balance between the economy and ecology, recent attempts made by the government, local poultry growers and processors indicate that the situation is not completely without hope.  The efforts of the Perdue company to lower its number of waste violations in recent years, and the influence of the 1998 Water Quality Improvement Act have had a positive effect on the environment.  However, the river cannot improve its own health.  Water quality is dependent on the actions of people.  Sometimes dealing with both business and environment seems like an endless maze of contradictions, because the success of one usually implies the downfall of the other.  The poultry industry has become a very important part of this region’s livelihood.  Without it, the area’s economy, including, but not limited to the agricultural businesses, would not have grown and flourished as it has.  However, the rapid success of the chicken business has meant an even more rapid decline of a precious resource – the Wicomico River. 

Embedded in our country’s heritage are the principles of capitalism and the energy of the entrepreneur.  To restrict business dealings seems like a rejection of our heritage.  The dazzle of huge corporate profits can blind us to the grimy refuse that industry leaves behind.  However, a more sensible eye looks at both the profits and the pollution.  While a company may have a substantial income, that profit is falsified if the costs of pollution created by that company are not subtracted from the amount of gain.  Cleaning up industrial waste is expensive, and ideally, the industry responsible for that waste should also be responsible for financing its disposal.  “A balance sheet that included environmental and human costs would have significantly lowered America’s Gross National Product (GNP) and reduced to realistic levels the benefits for material progress and industrial growth.” [82]   The benefits of industry must be counterbalanced by its negative aspects.  The monetary profit belongs to the individual company, but the effects of its pollution belong to everyone.  When an industry is allowed to pollute natural resources, all of the residents who live in the area suffer from the loss of a healthy environment.  The consequences of pollution do not only affect the industry that creates the pollution.  They are shared by everyone.  The victim in this scenario is one without a voice – or at least without a voice strong enough to speak out over the abusive bellows of surrounding industries.  In order to save the river, the people who know it best must continue to come to its aid.  The government has had to take a part in creating regulations, but it is the citizens who can make the biggest difference.  By taking an interest in the health of the local environment, citizens can ensure that resources such as the Wicomico River will be enjoyed by upcoming generations for many years. 

[1] Schmidt, John C.  “On the Shore – Chickens Lay Golden Eggs,” Baltimore Sun. 4/2/61

[2]  2000

[3] David Inman

[4] Horton, Tom.  Bay Country, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD. 1987. p. 212

[5] David Inman

[6] Opie, John.  Nature’s Nation: An Environmental History of the United States, Harcourt Brace College Publishers. New York.  1998. p. 270

[7] Opie, Nature’s Nation. p.271

[8] Tolbert, Glenn.  “Shoremen Pioneered the Poultry Business,” Salisbury Daily Times.  7/4/76

[9] Adkins, Kelvin.  “Shoreman Recalls Three Eras in the Raising of Poultry,” Salisbury Daily Times.  1/13/59

[10] Adkins, “Shoreman Recalls Three Eras”

[11] Tolbert, “Shoremen Pioneered”

[12] Tolbert, “Shoremen Pioneered”

[13] Anonymous.  “Poultry Industry Progress Reviewed,” Cresfield Times. 7/2/81

[14] Anon., “Poultry Industry Progress Reviewed”

[15] Rehert, Isaac.  “Carving Up the Chicken Market,” Baltimore Sun. 10/6/63

[16] Anon., “Poultry Industry Progress Reviewed”

[17] Adkins, “Shoreman Recalls Three Eras”

[18] Wheeler, Timothy B.  “Manure From Chicken Farms is Suspected in Pocomoke Ills,” Baltimore Sun.  8/10/97

[19] Tolbert, “Shoremen Pioneered”

[20] Anon., “Poultry Industry Progress Reviewed”

[21] Perdue, Mitzi.  Frank Perdue: Fifty Years of Building on a Solid Foundation.  Mitzi Perdue and the Arthur W. Perdue Foundation.  Salisbury, MD.  1989.  pp. 2-3

[22] Perdue, M.  Frank Perdue

[23] Perdue, E. Our Family Heritage

[24] Perdue Magazine, p. 1

[25] Rehert, “Carving Up"

[26] Perdue Magazine, p. 1

[27] Rehert, “Carving Up”

[28] Perdue Magazine, p. 6

[29] Perdue Magazine, p. 6

[30] Perdue Magazine, p. 20

[31] Perdue, M.  Frank Perdue

[32] Perdue Magazine, 16

[33] Tolbert, “Shoremen Pioneered”

[34] Perdue Magazine, p. 16

[35] Perdue Magazine, 19


[37] Graves, Aubrey.  “Broilers are Big Business on the Eastern Shore,” Washington Post. 5/21/61


[39] Fesperman, Dan, and Timothy B. Wheeler.  “Chicken Waste Linked to Toxin in Pocomoke” Baltimore Sun.  9/7/97

[40] Graves, “Broilers are Big Business”

[41] Rehert, “Carving Up”

[42] Anonymous.  “Would You Believe?”  Salisbury Daily Times.  5/20/67

[43] Anon., “Would You Believe?”


[45] Anonymous.  “Delmarva: Land of Broiler-Fryer Chicken,” Salisbury Daily Times.  5/29/79

[46] Goodman, Peter S. “Poultry’s Price,” Washington Post 8/22/99p.3  Taken from

[47] Chlada, John K.

[48] Chlada, John K. 

[49] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price”, p. 10

[50] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price” p.10

[51] Inman, David

[52] Inman, David

[53] Inman, David

[54] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price” p.10

[55] Kraemer, Nicole.  “Punitive Action No Surprise to Perdue,” Salsibury Daily Times.  3/20/97 p.1

[56] Kraemer, “Punitive Action”p.2

[57] Kraemer, “Punitive Action”p.2

[58] Kraemer, “Punitive Action”p.2

[59] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price” p. 7

[60] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price” p. 7

[61] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price”p.6

[62] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price”p.6

[63] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price”p.6

[64] Inman, David

[65] Wheeler, “Manure From Chicken Farms” p. 14-A

[66] Fesperman, “Chicken Waste” 1-A

[67] Fesperman, “Chicken Waste” 1-A

[68] Goodman, “Poultry’s Price”p.4

[69] Meyd, Donnie.  “The Problem of Pfiesteria on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” 11/20/2001.  Unpublished manuscript. p. 6

[70] Meyd, “Problem of Pfiesteria” p. 10

[71] Meyd, “Problem of Pfiesteria” p. 10

[72] Shelsby, Ted.  “Poultry’s Importance to Shore Economy Stressed.”  The Baltimore Sun.  12/9/97: p.1D

[73] University of Maryland, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  “A Citizen’s Guide to the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998.”

[74] Citizen’s Guide to the WQIA

[75] Citizen’s Guide to the WQIA


[77] Fesperman, “Chicken Waste” 9-A

[78] Fesperman, “Chicken Waste” 9-A

[79] Citizen’s Guide to the WQIA

[80] Citizen’s Guide to the WQIA

[81] Citizen’s Guide to the WQIA

[82] Opie, Nature’s Nation. p.271

Economic Chapter List

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