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Changes give Sussex chicken growers a lot to cluck about

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Poultry industry adapts to changing consumer demands

The traditions of the poultry industry in Sussex County might feel timeless, but the industry continues to face its share of new challenges.

Consumers are increasingly demanding chickens raised without antibiotics and with organic feed. A tight labor market is raising wages and requiring processors to offer perks like on-location health care.

The industry is also contending with a legacy of environmental pollution. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but each is leading this storied Delaware industry to adapt.

Consumer demands shifting

A trip to any grocery store’s meat aisle puts this new world on display. There are organic chickens, antibiotic-free chickens, no-antibiotic-ever chickens, steroid- and hormone-free chickens. 

Georgie Cartanza is an extension agent for UD who raises chickens near Dover. | Photo by Eric Crossan

Some of these labels are deceptive. All chickens, for example, are raised without hormones. But when you see a “hormone-free” label you could be forgiven for assuming, incorrectly, that poultry without the label may have hormones.

“It’s a backfire in marketing,” says Georgie Cartanza, an extension agent for the University of Delaware who raises chickens near Dover. “Everybody’s looking for that niche because chicken is a commodity.”

Many of the labels actually mean something, and they’re changing how farmers operate. Cartanza’s chickens are certified organic, meaning, among other things, that the grain they eat is certified as organic.

First, though, it’s worth defining our terms. Here’s a quick primer: 

Antibiotic-free: All chickens at the grocery store fit this bill. They may have had antibiotics at one point in their lives, but they were withdrawn well before (usually two weeks) the chicken was killed and processed.

No antibiotics ever: These chickens were not given any antibiotics over their lifespan.

No hormones, no steroids: This label tells you nothing because no meat chickens are raised with hormones or steroids.

Organic: These chickens have year-round access to the outdoors and all of their feed must be organically produced, among other requirements.

Cage-free or free-range: These chickens have access to the outdoors.

For now, these niches remain a small part of the market. Most consumers, when faced with a choice between lower prices and organic, will reach for the cheaper chicken, Cartanza says.

Perdue Farms, which purchased the organic chicken producer Coleman Natural in 2011, has earned positive press for its partnership with the Humane Society of the United States. They’ve changed how chickens live — including adding windows to 100% of chicken houses — and how they die, moving from electrical to gas stunning.

But some consumer demands complicate raising chickens in ways that are not so obviously good for them. Chickens that go outdoors, for example, are at higher risk of being exposed to bird flu.

Overall, though, the industry is faring well; consumer demand for broiler chickens is up 17% in the past decade, to 93 pounds per person per year. Meanwhile, demand for pork and beef is slightly down over that span, to a combined 109 pounds per person annually.

Reckoning with environmental responsibilities

Each spring before they plant, Laura and Roland Hill of rural Lewes take hundreds of soil samples across their farm to see how much nitrogen and other nutrients they’re starting out with. Then they add just enough fertilizer to feed their crops and hit the yields they’re aiming for. Add too much and they risk polluting the soil, not to mention wasting money.

Since 1999, Delaware state law has required farmers to take these steps to manage the amount of fertilizer they apply to fields.

They also raise about 110,000 chickens at a time, creating a need to dispose of their nutrient-rich manure. In the spring, they spread all of that manure on their corn, saving them a substantial amount of money.

“If you calculate the nitrogen and phosphorus in manure, there’s a lot of value to the farmer there,” says Laura Hill, who represents Sussex County poultry farmers on the state’s 19-member Nutrient Management Commission.

Poultry farmers and companies take their environmental duties seriously, says Holly Porter, executive director of the Delaware Poultry Institute.

“Farmers are the first environmentalists. They have to be,” she says.

The region’s sandy soils exacerbate this problem. If fertilizer or manure is over-applied to one area, it can eventually percolate through those sands, finding its way into drinking water or natural ecosystems.

In past decades, crop farmers and the poultry industry have at times not maintained this balance. This led to unhealthy levels of nitrates (which come from nitrogen) in drinking water. 

Near Millsboro, one in four private wells still have water that’s unfit to drink, said Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, a Rehoboth Beach-based nonprofit dedicated to restoring water quality in the bays area.

“At one time in Delaware, poultry manure was essentially disposed of on land as a way to get rid of it, though that was in part due to recommendations from universities at the time,” he said.

The nutrient management law and other changes — including better storage of chicken manure and publicly funded transportation of manure to areas where it’s needed — are reducing nutrient pollution.

Some evidence of this recovery can be seen in Little Assawoman Bay, where waters that were once cloudy due to nutrient pollution are now clear enough for light to reach the bottom. This is important because the bay’s plants need light to grow and support other kinds of life.

Though the nutrient management law is not universally popular among farmers, Hill said the law has helped “guide farmers to be efficient with their applications” of fertilizer.

Finding labor

Photo by Eric Crossan

When we use the term “chicken processing,” we mean the steps involved in turning a chicken from a living animal into a chicken breast or chicken nuggets. That takes a lot of people — about 8,500 of them work in Delaware’s poultry processing industry — willing to do a difficult, unglamorous job. 

As Sussex County’s unemployment rate sinks below 3%, poultry processors are increasingly looking for creative ways to meet their labor needs.

A 2018 article in the livestock industry magazine The National Provisioner puts it bluntly: “The traditional approach of treating employees as expendable is no longer an option.” Labor, the magazine says, accounts for between 60% to 70% of an average plant’s operating costs.

For one, they’re paying more. From 2008 to 2018, average wages in Delaware’s poultry processing industry have increased by 29%, to about $39,000. Meanwhile, average wages statewide rose 17% over that time.

The magazine also notes that employers are “increasingly reliant on a large immigrant labor pool over the past three decades.” Even this labor pool is being squeezed, it says, as undocumented immigrants are less likely to work in closely watched facilities and prefer to work in cash-pay businesses.

One way for poultry companies to stand out is to offer a benefit in high demand: affordable and accessible health care. Perdue Farms operates on-site “wellness centers,” which it says charge no co-pays for qualifying employees; non-covered employees are charged $30 per visit, according to a 2014 news release.

As labor costs go up and machinery becomes less expensive, the financial pressure to automate will rise. This hasn’t prevented steadily rising employment figures; aside from a dip in 2012, poultry processing job numbers continue to rise. 

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