Journey 4 Day 1: The Delmarva Poultry Giant

This week, the Chesapeake semester of 2013 set out on the final journey of the 4 month experience of studying the Chesapeake bay, Peru and the many issues surrounding both cultures, societies, and ecological and economical environments. It has been an incredible adventure full of rich exchanges with great people, intellectual breakthroughs, and has brought challenges that have developed the character, integrity, teamwork and leadership skills of all of us involved. I feel blessed to be a part of this incredible ride.

As a quick background, Delaware country is the largest chicken producer in the United States. This is because of rich soils in the bay watershed made by the layers of silt and nutrients that covered the land as the Susquehanna river flooded what is now the Chesapeake bay. Farmers dedicate vast acreage to grow grains in order to feed the chickens. In America, around %70 of agriculture is used to feed poultry, livestock, and pigs. Without these live industries there would be no agriculture and vice versa. The Delmarva is a prime location for poultry because it is situated close to Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and other major chicken consumers in the bay. The poultry industry in the Delmarva alone generates ~$250 million per year.

Our first trip of this final journey was to the Davis poultry farm. I learned about how farms operate, especially in the realm of cycling assets. For instance, manure is used as fertilizer to grow wheat, corn, and other grains a given farm to feed the farm’s livestock, pigs or poultry. These animals then produce milk, beef, pork, chicken, and naturally, more manure for fertilizer which closes the positive feedback loop that is farming. In this regard, farming can be extremely cost effective, and since farmland is productive, the farmers pay lower property taxes than they would if the land was developed and thus unproductive. However tempting it may seem to get into the business, the world of farming is not what it used to be.

On Earth, around %40 of the total land mass is used for agriculture and farming, %98 of farms in the US are family owned and operated, being passed down through generations. Today, it would be extremely difficult to start a farming operation from the ground up without existing infrastructure. The costs of equipment include tractors (~$280,000) to plant crops, Combines (~$300,000) to harvest crops, and a nitrogen sprayer (~$250,000) to fix the phosphorus dense, manure enriched soil. Not to mention the average $1million Chicken house with a 35,000 chicken capacity. Before The Davis family farm located along the Sassafras river. Is the large scale Cornish hen growing facility. It is a major player in the chicken growing industry of the Delmarva Peninsula. The large scale poultry industry (AKA Big Chicken) is controversial because it is a primary contributor to excess nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways from feces manure and ammonia dust into the air that is vented our of the chicken houses.

Growing a huge number of chickens on a relatively small farm, ~1.2 million annually, has devastating effects on local ecology if measures to minimize impact aren’t taken. Poultry manure runoff puts excess nutrients into waterways which endangers the health of the bay. The Chesapeake bay has an average depth of 21 feet, making it an excellent shallow place for algae to grow. Algal blooms happen when there is too much nitrogen and phosphorus put into the water. Filter feeders like the Atlantic Menhaden and the Eastern Oyster have been known to keep water clean. However, since their populations in the bay have been greatly reduced, the excess nutrients in the water are going unchecked by filter feeders. Thus, algae grows and dies, and upon dying leeches all the oxygen from the water, creating subaquatic dead zones where nothing can survive. The bay health is being slowly improved, but efforts are made all but obsolete because the water keeps getting degraded with poultry and livestock waste.

The Davis Family Farm has three chicken houses, all with ~35,000 chickens at a given time. It is the largest poultry growing farm in Northern Delmarva. This means they produce a shit ton of waste, pun intended. The problem with waste is that it not legally the responsibility of the owner of the waste producer to dispose of the byproduct created by their operation. Fortunately, farmers like the Davis family understand the problem with too much of their waste going into the nearby Sassafras river. The farm uses %100 of their manure for farming, and in the winter time plant cover crops. Cover crops are planted to absorb excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrient pollutants so the groundwater and nearby rivers and streams are safe from the nasty runoff that comes off of farms in unproductive winter months. The Davis farm also has a 30 ft wide vegetation buffer surrounding their entire farm to slow and absorb agricultural runoff.

The Davis farm provided a great example of how a farm can be sustainable and environmentally aware while still remaining profitable. During this visit I learned a great deal about the poultry industry, but also about how much time and energy is needed to run a successful farming operation. Farms are productive ways to use land, and contrary to popular belief, produce less waste than impervious housing and commercial developments. They are the reason we have food security and abundance for low prices. Now, whenever I sit down for meal, I take a moment to thank farmers and I encourage you to do the same. Just remember that without farms there would be no food.

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