Controversial poultry farm proposal downsized slightly

The design of the controversial chicken mega-farm off North West Road has been revised, with the plan now calling for 10 houses instead of the original 13.

That might not completely satisfy opponents who asked the Wicomico County Council to call a moratorium until more environmental studies are done. But the project can’t be stopped, as long as the landowners comply with requirements, County Executive Bob Culver said.

“Make no bones about it. This can pass now. We don’t have rules and regulations to stop this one right now. It can pass,” Culver told the Salisbury Independent this week.

Some opponents spoke without having correct information, he said, dismissing certain worries — such as dead chickens being tossed on top of compost piles for vultures to eat and leave their droppings, and breezes from farms causing cancer —  as “the-sky-is-falling mentality.”

It’s not that county officials aren’t concerned about the environment, water quality or proximity of the farm to the PaleoChannel underground water supply. They are, Culver said. In fact, he hired a hydrologist to study the matter. But logical steps must be taken: obtain more information; share facts, possibly at a public meeting; and, remember Wicomico County is an agricultural area.

“Farming is a big industry here. Concerns aren’t being brushed under the table. We aren’t covering our eyes and pushing it under the rug. We are looking into it, but some people have no idea when they open their mouths,” Culver said.

Longtime farmer Charles Wright IV, whose family owns Wright’s Market in Mardela Springs and has lived in the county since the 1600s, has operated a chicken farm more than 20 years. His brother, too, has a chicken farm.

Wright defended the poultry industry at last week’s County Council meeting and said some testimony there insulted him.

“The majority of it is not true,” he said, including that flies attracted to chicken houses spread diseases.

“That comes from swine, not chickens, and there are no hog operations here,” Wright said.

Dead birds aren’t carelessly tossed on compost piles. “If somebody is doing that, the Department of Agriculture will look into it,” he said.

The up-and-coming method for handling dead chickens is storing them in freezers until they are retrieved by a  rendering company, making them easier for farmers to manage.

“As for the groundwater, if the water hasn’t been contaminated by now, it’s not going to happen. In case anybody is looking around, there are a bunch of chicken houses here,” he said.

Larger chicken houses are the way of the future, to give the birds more room to  grow and to improve conditions for the animals, Wright explained.

“What do the people want? They want the best animal husbandry, and what the public wants, the industry answers the call. They start cutting density,” he said.

Rumors that larger farms will hurt local farmers with smaller operations also isn’t true, Wright said, because integrators, or companies farmers grow for, look out for them.

“The growers, they care. People like Perdue care enough to keep little farmers in business,” he said.

It’s mandatory to keep the public informed, he said.

Culver agreed. “We all need to learn a lot. This larger chicken farm, this is something we’re not used to. It’s different. But not one of us wants to hurt the ground water. None of us wants to pollute the air. There is no science backing up any of those claims,” Culver said.

“We have an airport out there, so there are many things to look into. I’m willing to meet and talk to anybody about this, but I’m not a punching bag,” he said.

A new six-house farm is planned on land off Route 12 near Nutter’s Crossing, and will be as close to the residential area and golf course as the 10-house farm will be to the Canterbury housing development in the North West Road area, Culver said.

“We had two or three concerns called into my office about this new farm early on, but then the people who live in that area learned it will be buffered. These big houses only carry about 40,000 to 45,000 birds, so they have more room to grow faster. This is the kind of stuff we’re learning,” Culver said.

Wright said he’s concerned that rumors are being driven by “big environment.”

“I’m not talking about environmentalists. I am an environmentalist. I take care of the land. But so much of this agenda is driven by some groups and it gets me extremely aggravated,” he said.

“What’s needed is more open communication, to communicate with leaders of the county,” he said.

Meantime, a day-long workshop for new and existing poultry farmers is planned for Feb. 18, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Wicomico Extension Office on Quantico Road.

Created by the University of Maryland Extension, the workshop will cover farm management, site management and maintenance, best management practices, mortality, manure handling, litter management, windbreaks and vegetative environmental buffers, financial record keeping, concentrated animal feed operation regulation, nutrient management, comprehensive nutrient management plans, inspections and emergency preparedness.

It is open to the public and costs $20. Call 410 742 1178 or e-mail to soscar@umd.edu

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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