Burton on the Bay:
For the Birds
Along the Bay, will it be a chicken in every spot?

This is the farmer sowing the corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in
The House that Jack Built.
This is the farmer sowing the corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in
The House that Jack Built.


Egad, now it appears that over there on the Upper Eastern Shore it's about to be the other way 'round.

Can it really be true, as reported in the Sunday Sun, that instead of farmers sowing corn for the chickens, raising chickens can help keep farmers sowing corn? Pray, tell me it isn't so. When embattled farmers gathered at Concord, the shot was heard 'round the world. Now, when Upper Shore farmers talk about raising chickens, it's a shout heard 'round the world.

Can it be the farms of Kent, Queen Anne's and Talbot Counties -- with their majestic fields of corn, wheat and soybeans -- will be transformed like the Lower Shore to flatland spreads of mega chicken coops? Hold your nose as you drive by.
Move over Kentucky and Arkansas: our Maryland is also for the birds -- and not just the Orioles and Ravens.

Four hundred years ago, King Henri IV talked about every peasant blessed with a chicken in every Sunday pot. Later wasn't it Hoover who promised a chicken in every pot? So now, in these days when bigger is better, there's talk of a couple hundred thousand chickens on every farm on the other side of the Bay.

Hey, whether you like fried chicken or not, or perhaps prefer it roasted and stuffed, think of what that means. Talk about a no-win situation. The farmers say it's the only way they can stay on the farm. But I hear echoes of William Jennings Bryan's words at the Democratic National Convention of 1896: "Destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."


Men with Scoops

Grass will grow in the streets because city folks will move to new housing developments where barns and fields filled the countryside.

Are we really at the point where it's either chicken houses or people houses? Where's the wheat going to come from for the biscuits served with the fried chicken? Or the potatoes for the accompanying French fries?

Are men of the soil doomed to turn their shovels and hoes into the poop of the chicken? Will Perdue, Holly Farms and KFC rule the world, and artery-clogging Buffalo wings replace stuffed celery as the national finger food?

And what about the marine life of the Chesapeake and its tributaries, the oysters, clams, crabs and fish? Certainly the nutrients and phosphorus from the droppings of millions of chickens will eventually pollute their habitat.

What a convoluted quagmire. The farmers need the chickens -- and chickens practically force-fed to grow fast, big and tasty need to drop their wastes.

There's talk of converting chicken droppings into fuel for an Eastern Shore power plant, something that's being developed on the other side of the Atlantic, but we've all heard about those pie-in-the-sky schemes before. Who'd want to live within miles of a generating facility powered by manure? I'd prefer to take up residence with a barrel of skunks.


Raising a Stink

The last time something akin to that worked was when homesteaders traveling the treeless prairies in covered wagons fired up petrified buffalo chips to percolate coffee. They held their pots via long poles and stayed upwind.

The suggestion of chicken farming taking over on the Shore is something to raise a stink about. And speaking of raising a stink, ask the old-timers who once drove to Ocean City in slow Wicomico County traffic when not many family jalopies had air conditioning. Through the open windows came the aroma from chicken condominiums built close to Route 50.

What about the landscape over there on the Shore? What now breaks the monotony of an otherwise tedious and boring drive: the fields of green crops, the rainbows glistening in the spray of irrigation sprayers, the farmhouses and the barns.

Now think back to the '40s and early '50s when, erupting alongside the streets of the big cities, was the drab maze of low-income housing developments -- long, low sheds. Or perhaps you were in the service before then, and can recall the uninspired barracks or Quonset huts on the military bases.

Contemporary chicken housing involves behemoths that appear as long as football fields, each priced at more than your house or mine. And second only to broilers in volume in those coops is their droppings.

At least the old chicken coops back when farmers raised fowl for their own table were different, each and every one -- and always upwind from the house. Periodically, when the domicile of the Rhode Island reds and barred rocks were hoed out, the dried and matted droppings were used along with manure from livestock in the barn and store-bought fertilizer for the crops.



But back then, we're talking only of several dozen chickens. Today, multiply that by a couple thousand -- and every one of them has to go to the bathroom. Because they do, their waste has to be removed -- or before long there wouldn't be any room for the chickens.

Out of necessity, farmers are practical people when it comes to business. Those who aren't eventually are forced to move to or work in the city and village. So, seeing that chicken manure makes crops grow and doesn't cost anything, you and I know where all of it will end up.

It's first stop is the fields, but then some sinks into the earth to ground water, much becomes run-off and heads for the Choptank, Chester, Nanticoke and Pocomoke watersheds, all of which eventually winds up in the Chesapeake. By then its 'refined' nutrients and phosphorus trigger algae blooms and degrade water quality.

To go a step farther, might I mention that ugly, feared word Pfiesteria, the scourge of the Pocomoke. All of this takes years, maybe a couple of decades before we realize what has been done -- then many more years to undo the damage if at all possible.

We're reaping the consequences of our indifference to the problems of the average farmer who now finds chickens as the only alternative if he's to pay the mortgage.

Which reminds me of Will Charlatan, who wrote: Worm or beetle -- drought or tempest -- on a farmer's land may fall, each is loaded full o' ruin, but a mortgage beats 'em all.

Enough said.

| Issue 12 |

Volume VII Number 12
March 25-31, 1999
New Bay Times

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