By James Fisher Special to Delaware Business Times Raising, processing and marketing chicken is Delaware agriculture’s main economic engine. Seventy cents of every dollar earned on a Delaware farm is […]
[caption id="attachment_230114" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The Delmarva chicken industry produced $5 billion in value of product, and farms in Kent and Sussex county contributed. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE[/caption]
GEORGETOWN — As Delaware’s chicken industry celebrates a century in business, it broke through to $5 billion in 2022 poultry sales, showing the industry has continued to rebound from pandemic-related struggles.The Delmarva Chicken Association (DCA) recently released its year-end report that estimates sales increased 12% year-over-year in 2022. Farmers raised 596 million chickens, a 5% rise from the previous year. Overall, demand for chicken remains strong, as processors produced 4.2 billion pounds of chicken for kitchen tables and grocery store freezers.However, DCA Executive Director Holly Porter noted that challenges still remain, as inflation has caused the cost of doing business to increase. Feed ingredients for corn, wheat and soybeans was estimated at $1.6 billion — up 12% from the previous year. Roughly 10% to 15% of Delmarva’s chickens are exported outside the country, and its major market continues to be the Mid-Atlantic region.“In the spirit of doing more with less, Delmarva’s chicken industry has been able to increase the amount of food we deliver to consumers by 38% in the past 20 years even as feed ingredient costs rose sharply and the number of chickens raised in a year grew less than 2% in that time,” Porter said in a statement.Chicken companies bought 89 million bushels of corn and 39 million bushels of soybeans, including 428,482 bushels from farmers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.Chicken “growers,” or those who raise chickens, earned $349 million in contracts in 2022, or 18% more than in 2021, another sign of the pace of inflation.In the last 20 years, the pool of growers has shrunk by almost 990 contracts, while chicken companies grew as it became more streamlined. Today, there are 18,317 employees from major poultry companies like Perdue, Mountaire, Tyson and Allen Harim. DCA spokesman James Fisher pointed out that the land use changes in southern Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore have pushed the poultry industry growers to do more with what’s on hand, like adding an extra chicken house on the property.“Housing has been in increasing demand on the market, and changing land from agriculture to residential use is driving farms to find ways to become more efficient,” he said. “There’s not more land, but there’s more markets – you do need more food to feed those people moving in those houses.”In 2022, there were nearly 5,000 chicken houses that altogether had the capacity for 134 million birds.Meanwhile, employees who worked at the big poultry facilities earned $891 million in wages, excluding benefits. Regardless of earlier workforce woes in retaining talent, the chicken industry showed stable employment figures year-over-year since the economy went into a steady recovery mode in 2021.“Companies are still highlighting not just on-site health care, but also the wage increase offered. I do know some companies are experimenting with flexible schedules, even four-day work weeks. Now, to what degree that’s offered here, I’m not sure, but companies across the country are thinking creatively,” Fisher said.Chicken companies spent $359 million on packaging and processing supplies in 2022, and invested $168 million in capital projects like wastewater treatment, hatcheries and processing plants.With reports of outbreaks of the avian flu outbreak last year so far affecting 58 million farmed birds in 47 states, the DCA confirmed that since last year there have been no cases on a Delmarva farm since March 2022, and no mass depopulation events have been reported among its members.“It’s certainly something growers think about every day, and it’s become that they’re on guard against it and biosecurity measures are more important than ever,” Fisher said. “We're a bit lucky because our members raise broiler chickens, which are harvested between 6 to 9 weeks of age. As chickens get older, they get more susceptible to [highly pathogenic avian influenza].”Earlier this year, the DCA kicked off its “Growing for 100 Years”campaign, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Delmarva’s chicken industry. In 1923, Cecile Steele of Ocean View raised a 500-chicken broiler flock after she received an accidental over-shipment to her farm.