BERLIN — Kathy Phillips has been on the front lines of the ongoing debate between the region’s environmentalist and agriculture advocates for years as the Assateague Coastkeeper and as the head of the Assateague Coastal Trust.
Phillips says finding the balance between preserving and protecting the region’s natural resources and not over-regulating one of the shore’s biggest and longest standing industries is often frustrating and difficult. But in recent months, new voices speaking out against large-industrial scale farms popping up on the shore have joined the debate and she believes those voices could be a factor in making the type of strides and progress that environmentalists have been longing for.
Q: In recent months, there has been a growing conversation about CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. In modern farming, they say consolidation and efficiency are the keys to profits. But, in order to keep up with that, chicken houses have grown almost three times the size they were in 1960. Let’s define the difference between the normal or the historic family farm that we’ve always had on the Eastern Shore and what these CAFOs are.
A: CAFOs are any type of contained animal feeding operation that has more than 125,000 animal units to it in the state of Maryland. CAFOs have to be permitted under the EPA’s Clean Water Act to assure or attempt to not have any water discharges off of the facility. However, yes, you are right, the model of poultry production on the Eastern Shore in the past year or so is vastly different from what everyone else is used to.
I think the biggest problem is that while the industry has been growing, and consolidating and making changes to their production model, the counties and the communities have not been keeping up with that change. So, what we end up with is these archaic zoning codes that are not equipped to handle this kind of industrial animal production. It’s very difficult for residents and members of these rural communities to accept these industrial scale operations as normal farming operations that are covered under ‘Right to Farm’ laws so that’s why you are seeing this conflict. The industry, and when I say the industry, I’m not talking about the traditional family farmer that has three or four of these larger houses, I’m talking about the fact that poultry production on the Eastern Shore is driven by these large companies, has almost arrogantly gone ahead and changed this model and put these huge industrial complexes on very small parcels of land.
In the case of Wicomico County, they’ve put them right in the middle of what is currently designated as the metro core. So again, you have these ancient zoning codes that combine residential and agriculture, which 40 years ago, probably worked. People liked to move into rural neighborhoods where they had the white barn, the horses, a few chicken houses as their neighbors, but that’s not what these are. So, when you say CAFO you have to kind of define what we are talking about, and that’s why so many residents are referring to them as industrial scale CAFOs. We are also seeing that these are not farmers or even residents of the county that are setting up these production facilities, they are more like CAFO developers. It’s kind of like what you would see at a shopping center. They come in, they buy up a parcel of land, they build what they are going to build, and move down the road and build some more. So, these are not even members of the community. In some cases, the owners of these are part of large investment cooperatives.
Q: The environmental community and the poultry industry are often at odds when it comes to answering the question of how the natural resources of the region should be used. On one hand, agriculture is one of the most important industries on the shore, it’s a huge job and revenue creator, but our natural resources such as our Coastal Bays and the Chesapeake Bay are a hugely important part of our ecosystem. Each side says it understands the other side’s position and wants to find compromise, but what makes this discussion interesting is that the uprising or the outcry is not coming from Big Agriculture or Big Environment. It’s coming from citizens. Talk about how that has that changed the debate or the conversation?
A: It’s probably been two years since residents of Somerset County contacted Assateague Coastal Trust to get some help. They live in a rural community but they were seeing their landscape change and seeing these huge industrial operations come in right next to their neighborhoods. We were very happy to connect them with some of the resources they might need to go to their elected officials and ask the county to review the whole permitting process and find out if rural neighborhoods and next to churches and schools were really the right place to put so many of these big industrial growing operations.
That’s really where it started and the people in Somerset were the first who asked the question, “is this really a good idea or not?” It has just grown since then. It took Somerset County a year and a half to come up with suggested zoning changes, and that’s now waiting for the County Commissioners to put those out to a public hearing. At the same time, and almost even a much greater extent, Wicomico County has sort of sprawled out into the countryside without a very good smart-growth plan over the years. So unfortunately, they were leaving these pockets of Ag-zoned land that were surrounded by these large communities. So, when someone comes along and purchases that land, and it’s zoned Ag, based on the current laws, they have every right to put up chicken houses on this Ag land. But, they are using every square inch of these smaller parcels. To put in multiple 500-600 foot chicken houses.
Q: Would it change the debate at all if these archaic zoning laws, which date back five decades in many cases, were changed and CAFO’s were not so close to residential areas? Or, is this debate charged by the sheer grandiosity of these operations and the potential or feared impacts these CAFOs may have on our environment or our communities?
A: The level of intensity and density of these industrial scale growing facilities being built is raising a lot of concerns with the communities. If you look at the Midwest and someone has a 1,000 acres of land and they have 10, 15, or maybe even 20 poultry houses or other kind of livestock. That’s set down in the middle of a thousand acres and then there is crop production surrounding them. That’s a lot different than putting six of these 600-foot-long houses that can hold up to 35,000 or more birds per house. So, when you get six houses, and you get five to six flocks a year, we are talking about millions of birds per year being grown on a 60-acre parcel of land that is completely surrounded by a housing development. So, in that case, yes, the local community should be concerned about air quality, about traffic safety, and their water quality.
Q: Let’s talk water quality. I found a study done by UMES in 2010 that said that two thirds of the water samples tested contained too much coliform bacteria to be deemed suitable for drinking. Coliform, of course, is a type of bacteria that comes from animal or human waste and can cause intestinal illnesses. Three out of five people in Somerset County rely on groundwater as drinking water. The poultry industry often says that there is not enough science to back up concerns about public health or water quality. Do you agree with that?
A: No, I don’t. Besides the study that you are referring to about the bacteria contamination to the groundwater, the U.S. Geological Survey has also done studies on Delmarva in regards to nitrate levels in well water. We know that Somerset, Wicomico, most of the lower Eastern Shore, and parts of Southern Delaware have exceedingly high levels of nitrates in the water. Some of this is because of the crop production on the Eastern Shore for the poultry industry of corn and soybeans and the long history of using chicken manure to fertilize those fields and the runoff you have been getting from the land application of chicken fertilizer. There is a truckload of studies that are referenced in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future’s letter to Wicomico County. That letter very specifically talks about air deposition and the need for ammonia scrubbers and the need for UV lights inside these houses. The poultry industry has done a very good job of improving the construction of these houses and the technology inside these houses to protect the chickens and make sure they get the chickens to market. But, there is also technology out there to improve the pollution that comes off of these CAFOs.
Q: Over the years, as Big Ag and Big Environment have gone back and forth trying to find the balance between enabling the industry to operate and preserving our natural resources, the question that often comes up is how many chicken houses can our region handle in a healthy way. So, I wonder as the poultry industry grows and that need to ‘feed the world’ drives that growth, has the environmental industry or lobby decided or pinpointed a number of chicken houses that you believe the shore can yield as far as the size of the industry?
A: We don’t have that exact number, but I think that the research and the literature is there and ready to be analyzed so we can determine that. The science is there to determine what is being emitted from these facilities and science says it does pose a risk to public health if you are trying to combine densely populated residential areas with dense and intense animal agriculture.
I think the solution is not all that difficult, but the Eastern Shore counties, the governmental agencies and the industry have to come to an agreement that this type of animal production is not normal farming and it needs to be zoned accordingly. We need to manage this differently than how we are managing it right now, and that’s what these citizens are asking for. That’s why you are seeing this citizen uprising right now, because they are finding these large industrial scale poultry houses right behind their child’s school, their mother’s assisted living facility or their own homes. It’s just not the right place for them.