COMMENTARY: Chicken – The Delmarva job creator hidden in plain sight

Can you imagine an industry that generates more than $900 million in income a year for its employees and contractors; had a successful track record of reducing its environmental footprint on the land; and ensured thousands of acres of cropland on family farms stayed productive and undeveloped?

You don’t have to imagine it. That’s Delmarva’s chicken industry as it is today.

There are more than 1,700 families on Delmarva who raise chickens for a living, and 14,500 people are employed by the region’s five chicken companies. The industry figures we at Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. (DPI) compiled for 2016 illustrate just how important chicken is not just to the industry personnel but to the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia economies in full — while also highlighting our efforts to be good neighbors beyond any given farm’s property lines.

Bill Satterfield

Delmarva chicken is a multibillion-dollar business. The wholesale value of all the chicken produced here in 2016 was $3.2 billion. Payments to the 1,736 family farmers who raised that chicken totaled $243 million last year, up 6 percent from the year before. Wages earned by chicken-company employees rose 7 percent, to $663 million. These are welcome reminders that chicken is a significant part of our regional economy.

Many Delawareans may not realize the extent to which chicken supports crop farming here, too. Most locally grown corn and soybeans are used to feed Delmarva’s chickens; our birds are locavores that way. That means chicken industry dollars support Delaware, Maryland and Virginia family farms and the local economy many times over. Backstopping crop farming also brings an ecological benefit, since farmland produces less pollution per acre than developed land does.

Raising chickens on Delmarva developed into a bona fide industry in the 1920s. Between then and now, the science and agricultural know-how of how to best grow chickens, and how to make the best use of chicken litter, has evolved quite a bit. Chicken litter — the mix of wood shavings and manure that forms the floor of a chicken house — turns out to be a locally produced, organic, slow-release fertilizer, an alternative to chemical fertilizers and perfect for feeding farmers’ crops.

Litter is not “waste,” as some critics of the chicken industry describe it; it’s a valuable asset that many chicken growers earn income from when they sell it to farmers.

Annual broiler/roaster/Cornish production: 594.9 million
Total pounds produced: 4.12 billion
Number of broiler/roaster/Cornish houses: 4,700
Broiler/roaster/Cornish house capacity: 122.4 million
Broiler/roaster/Cornish and breeder growers: 1,736
Poultry company employees: 14,500
Value of chicks started: $189.7 million
Annual feed bill: $997.1 million
Bushels of corn used for feed: 85.4 million
Bushels of soybeans used for feed: 35.5 million
Bushels of wheat used for feed: 1.8 million
Packaging and other processing supplies: $220.7 million
Poultry company capital improvements: $94 million
Grower contract payments: $243 million
Wholesale value of broilers/roasters/Cornish: $3.21 billion

Still, the health of our environment demands we use chicken litter responsibly. Delmarva farmers do that, meeting and exceeding every resource conservation and nutrient management goal set out for them. Poultry growers know the standard for them is “zero discharge,” and each of their farms is required to provide to the state a natural resources protection plan. The plans ensure manure and litter are handled in ways that keep them away from the water supplies that are so important to our communities.

In fact, in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, agriculture’s commitment to responsibility has led to demonstrable reductions in the amount of nitrogen, a common nutrient, in the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recognizes this progress, reporting in January that “long-term trends in nitrogen pollution… indicate conditions are improving,” and that “improvements in managing stormwater runoff from farms, lawns and roads may be having an impact.”

For all its success, the chicken industry always faces challenges. A main one involves producing products consumers want to buy. Chicken’s popularity as a center-of-the-plate protein has risen for many years, and these days, consumers are increasingly interested in learning where their foods come from and how they were made. Finding ways to raise chickens without any antibiotics ever is one example of how our industry is committed to innovation.

Another challenge involves staying vigilant about avian influenza, a disease that can spread from chicken to chicken,

or from wildfowl to chicken flocks. Delmarva’s commercial chicken flocks have been free of avian influenza since 2004, even as the disease has seriously disrupted chicken production in many countries around the world; at the moment, many European and Asian nations are imposing lockdowns on poultry flocks as they try to contain avian influenza outbreaks.

For farmers, preventing avian influenza means practicing biosecurity on their properties — limiting who visits the farm, and requiring the use of clean clothing, foot baths, and other measures when people do visit. Vigilance in adhering to biosecurity standards is a necessity we remind each other of every day, and you can be confident the chicken you purchase is safe and wholesome.

Chicken is essential to Delmarva’s economy, and its continued success depends on the ongoing support of the communities where farm families live and work. We are proud to call the region home and feel privileged to serve its residents, our neighbors.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Satterfield is executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc.

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