With the possibility of close to 2000 new industrial chicken houses being built in Accomack County, residents turned out for an information session at Eastern Shore Community College hosted by the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and Preserve Our Shore. The panel included farmers, former growers as well as science and economic experts.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D. Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Senior Scientist for Center for Food Safety stated that, despite the notion that large CAFOs may promise economic development, there are real costs involved. For most rural counties, the large amount of waste created by industrial agricultural operations is overwhelming. Unable to transport it very far, most opt to spread the manure on local fields. The runoff into streams and estuaries, such as the bay, can have devastating effects, such as dead zones.
According to Dr. Gurian-Sherman large amounts of concentrated manure, while it can be a valuable way to resupply nutrients to the soil, can also become toxic. There are better ways to farm, Gurian-Sherman said, that work with nature to absorb these nutrients.
Gurian-Sherman noted that the industry is highly subsidized by the federal government, that citizens are supporting a defunct method of farming at the expense of rural communities, the environment and health. The economic argument was also challenged– Gurian-Sherman argued that in most cases, the industry only creates low paying, dangerous jobs, and that the data indicates that most counties that rely on industrial farming are usually among the poorest in the state.
Craig Watts, a farmer and former contract grower for Perdue Chicken spoke about the dark side of running a CAFO. While the companies may present a rosy economic picture, the financial reality is usually quite different. Nearly all the chicken raised in the United States is grown by farmers who contract with “vertically integrated” companies that own the chickens as well as the entire supply chain, from hatcheries to feed mills to processing and packaging plants. While profits may go up for the company, the hassle, and the lower margins usually end up with the grower,
Watts said. When feed is expensive or chicken prices are low (or both), the grower, rather than the company, suffers. Contract growers have reportedly not seen an effective raise in more than two decades, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating that growers are paid, on average,34 cents for each chicken they raise.
Lisa Inzerillo a 4th generation farm owner from Somerset County spoke about the human cost of CAFOs. While her farm is close to 65 acres, she is now surrounded by almost 200 large scale chicken houses. The proximity to her has impacted not just her farm’s value, but also her quality of life. The smell and influx of insects has made it hard for her be outside during the warmer months of the year. According to Inzerillo, the rural quality of life in her community has been ruined by the county’s chasing after low paying jobs and limited economic returns.
Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri advocated for a nation-wide moratorium on CAFOs, to give people time to inform themselves on the nature of the threats to clean water, clean air, and safe, healthful food. Dr. Ikerd also proposes a national “right to farm” law that will preempt all current state right to farm laws, and specifically exclude CAFOs and other industrial agricultural systems from the legal definition of “farm.” He is also a proponent of a CAFO tax to create a “superfund”. This fund would be used to start closing down and cleaning up after CAFOs wherever they threaten the rights of their neighbors. Dr. Ikerd also noted that we need to replace current government policies that support factory farms and industrial agriculture with a farm bill that supports independent family farms and sustainable animal agriculture.
During the question and answer sessions, residents stated that the potential for 2000 new chicken houses in Accomack would mean that most everyone would be effected in one way or another, either directly, or by having tax dollars going to maintain infrastructure, such as the roadways. It was also noted that most of these new CAFOs will not be locally owned, but by investors, many of them foreign entities such as South Korea and China.
More than 40 percent of China’s existing arable land has been degraded by pollution, acidification, and reduced fertility, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, reported in 2014. In an effort to help feed its people, and cut out the middleman, foreign buyers are owning and operating these American farms themselves—as well as the livestock barns and slaughterhouses. The pork processor Smithfield was recently purchased by a Chinese holding company.
The evening was summed up by a short film, Right to Harm by Hourglass Films’ Annie Speicher and Matt Wechsler, which spotlighted Kewaunee County Wisconsin activists Jodi Parins and Lee Luft. Kewaunee County is struggling to maintain its drinking water, health and rural character in the face of large-scale CAFOs. The main theme, that was echoed throughout the presentation was that the effort to hold on to or take back your community begins at home with grass roots efforts to effect policy changes. Dr. Gurian-Sherman stated that sometimes you just have to be a pest. Nobody likes to do that, but lawmakers and those that can change policy have to be made aware of how CAFOs are effecting the people that are forced to live around them.