Respecting residents, supporting farmers requires conscientious decisions

New poultry houses are a major news story on Delmarva, and a topic at County Council meetings. We understand why. This area is no longer as rural as it once was, and real estate development has brought residential properties and agricultural operations in close proximity. A return to poultry house construction after several years of inactivity alone is newsworthy; the need for zoning that protects residents while respecting the right to farm makes the issue much more important.

As the Chief Animal Welfare Officer and Family Farm Advocate for Perdue, I want to share how we fit into this. We are happy to see counties updating their zoning to reflect the changes in residential development and modern poultry operations. For us, though, regulation is not a prerequisite for responsibility, and we already have guidelines for new poultry housing that are usually stricter than local zoning.

We’re not expanding our operations on Delmarva, but we do need to replace farms that have gone out of production. Some of our programs are moving to more space for our chickens so we can raise them without any antibiotics, to meet higher standards of care and to support the growing demand for organic chicken. That means we need more houses to raise the same number of chickens.  

We also take an active role in making sure a new poultry operation is going to be a good neighbor before we contract with the prospective farmer. We take into consideration the size of the farm and the potential concerns of neighboring property owners. That includes physically inspecting the property. If the farm does not meet our guidelines for setbacks from property lines, neighborhood dwellings, stream and wetlands, and maximum number of chicken houses, the proposal must go before an internal review committee. As part of that process, we will ask the prospective farmer to meet with neighbors, and ask for documentation of those meetings. Not all farmers who wish to contract with us will meet those requirements, and they are free to pursue a contract with one of our competitors.

Our recently announced Animal Care Commitments includes an emphasis on engaging the farmers who raise our animals. We can best fulfill that by working with family-owned and operated farms with a reasonable number of houses. We find that when the family owns and operates the farm, they are more engaged in caring for the flocks than a corporation or investor who only sees the bottom line and has no direct interest in the birds’ welfare. We also think that a farm can reach a size at which increased production can economically justify compromises in poultry welfare, a situation that would not align with our goals.

The largest chicken house we contract holds a maximum of 68,600 birds; older farms have smaller houses. Most of the farms on Delmarva raising our chickens have between three and four houses. There are exceptions, but those are carefully considered. Farms come in all sizes, and the most important thing to us is the farmers’ commitment and ability to properly manage the poultry operation. That includes animal care, environmental stewardship and being a good neighbor. We work with all of our farmers to help them follow best management practices for their poultry operations.

Some farmers won’t be happy with our decisions to limit farm size or location. Some residents simply don’t want chicken houses. But, by recognizing our responsibility to the communities in which we operate, and making conscientious decisions about the size and location of farms raising our chickens, we can respect neighborhoods while remaining supportive of family farmers who want to grow poultry.

Mike Levengood is Chief Animal Welfare Officer and Family Farm Advocate for Perdue Farms.

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