Neighbors of 'mega' chicken farms call on state for relief from environmental effects
Much of the Delmarva Peninsula is devoted to farming -- especially raising chickens. But with new technologies and outside investment, the small family farms the region once knew are growing into sprawling, factory-style complexes. And often, they're right in people's backyards.
In Delaware, those neighbors say the state isn't doing its part to protect them from the effects of a changing industry. Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik reports.
Cheri Zatko-Coseglia moved her family to the rural town of Farmington a decade ago for open land and blue skies. But now, the first thing you see on her property is flies and haze.
CHERI: (dogs scuffling) They're gonna say hello. (front door opening) But I've had a pool in this house, if you do a Google Earth search, since the second year…
The backyard pool is full of algae. And beyond it are 10 rowhouses where almost half a million broiler chickens -- Delaware's top agricultural product -- are being raised. Each house is longer than two football fields, studded with huge fans on both sides.
They appeared as if overnight, says Zatko-Coseglia, with no public notice.
"I could care less looking at it, so much as smelling it, and feeling it, and experiencing all the flies," she says. "Our fly swatter has never been more active than this summer. You live in the country, you're gonna have flies, but..." not like this, she says.
What's more, she says her well water now has nitrate levels above safe limits without a reverse osmosis filter, which she's had to replace twice as often as before the houses were built. The family has cut down their showers to five minutes, bought an expensive air filtration system for the house and taken in their clothesline. And their cats and dogs always seem to have fleas.
"I have people who won't come to visit me now because of the chicken houses -- family who will not come," Zatko-Coseglia says. "They just won't come."
And she's not the only one. Up the road, a state-record 20-house project is partly finished, with 12 houses up and running. The complex will be able to hold nearly a million chickens when it's finished, and Bob and Irene Moore are its neighbors.
"It would have been nice to have been warned so if we wanted to sell the property or something, we'd have had a chance," says Irene on her front step. Bob, who's recovering from a cancer operation, wears a surgical mask when he's outdoors. "Now our property is worth nothing."
But the state doesn't have to notify homeowners that farm construction on farm land is in the works. It's a lawful use carried out by the county under state auspices.
Eric Buckson is Farmington's Kent County Levy Court commissioner. He says he doesn't mind the state encouraging agricultural development, but he isn't sure if operations this size should fall under the same rules as a traditional family farm. That question, he says, falls to lawmakers and regulators.
"You have to decide -- these what I will call mega-farms or massive chicken houses, versus your standard two to three homes... they probably will, if they're more successful, keep coming," Buckson says. "Are you sure you want very, very limited scrutiny on how the roads, environment and everything else is protected specific to the constituents in that area?"
It's true that the chicken industry on the Delmarva Peninsula is trending toward more poultry houses owned by fewer farmers. Bill Brown runs six of those houses, and he's also the poultry agent for the University of Delaware's cooperative extension.
"What we've seen over time is, as agriculture has adopted technology, it's allowed the family farm to take care of more and more and more birds," Brown says. "Thirty years ago, I could never have taken care of, or anyone could have taken care of, six houses."
Now, the industry is booming. Though Brown says the state loses 3 to 5 percent of farm capacity annually to attrition, it's earning it back by permitting more and more new chicken houses -- 120 just this year, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, or DNREC.
But regulations aren't matching the pace of that growth.
"There's been many, many years of operations without any sort of regulations," says Matt Hedger, a former private contractor who worked on both Farmington projects. "And it's a difficult balance, still, with protecting the environment as well as … allowing them to continue operation."
That's a balance the Delaware Department of Agriculture is trying to strike. Chris Brosch runs its nutrient management program, and he says DDA will add more oversight for things like large-scale manure disposal in the next few years.
"We have the capacity to accommodate that permitting process with the staff here, and we anticipate several more permits to evolve over time," Brosch says. "That's all planned out and been approved by [the Environmental Protection Agency], so we're happy to do that."
DNREC also has some oversight. Officials there declined to comment by deadline for this story -- but even their newest stormwater runoff rules don't apply to really big developments. Those rules are currently tied up in court over a procedural issue, and the poultry industry is lobbying against adding more costly requirements to future versions.
"Some of the pushback was coming in that to do a full stormwater management plan for these poultry house operations was putting them in the same category and the same level of effort as if somebody was doing a commercial shopping center or a residential subdivision," says Jared Adkins, who manages stormwater permits for the Kent Conservation District on DNREC's behalf.
Whatever happens, he says existing projects, such as those in Farmington, won't have to go back and comply with new iterations of the law.
For neighbors, it's an unwelcome reality: what's done is done. State officials told them so at a meeting Commissioner Buckson held last year, with legislators in attendance. No minutes were taken.
But it gets at a larger conversation that Kent County planning director Sarah Keifer says Delaware needs to have.
"We allow residential development in the agricultural zoning districts, and at the same time, want to preserve agriculture," she says. "So I do think by allowing that over the years, that in some respects, we've set up conflicts."
If more residents complain to legislators, Keifer thinks they might "be forced" to add new requirements, such as tree plantings, wider setbacks or more neighbor-friendly traffic patterns.
The chicken industry recommends measures like those, too -- but they're all voluntary, as in the case of Delmarva Poultry, Inc.'s practices for "good neighbor relations." DPI is the nonprofit trade group that represents growers and distributors on the peninsula.
Director Bill Satterfield has been using those practices to help Maryland and Virginia revamp their zoning in the region. He says he'd be open to doing the same in Delaware.
"Obviously, I think anybody in business would like to have a minimum of government regulation, but sometimes regulations serve a public purpose," Satterfield says. "And if the counties want to put in more stringent setbacks and regulations to accommodate the chicken industry, and they're reasonable, we can live with that. We'll work with them on that."
But for now, neighborliness is up to farmers -- and in Farmington, it's been slow to evolve. The 20-house complex is run by Andrew Hudyma, who lives in Maryland. He declined an interview, but confirmed he's started planting trees on his property just this month, more than two years after getting state approval.
His chickens are sold by Mountaire Farms, a big regional processor based in Selbyville that did not return requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the 10-house project supplies the even larger Perdue Farms, which does get neighbor input ahead of major construction. That was how neighbors say they received a promise from Perdue that it would build a berm with trees to offset the effects of the poultry houses.
Perdue officials say that’s in their plan, but the state doesn't have enough money in its cost-sharing program to help grower Gulham Gujar afford the trees. Gujar also owns a smaller chicken farm nearby, and says he needed to expand to pay his bills.
"I have too much payment, you know, so I can't survive that way," Gujar says. "It's not that much income, so... if you have more, little [by] little, it'll make you more income."
Audrey Sharp, who lives at the intersection of the two big Farmington projects, is skeptical. She used to raise broilers, too, and she says saplings are cheap. In fact, she planted a row of them on her land to ease the chicken smell.
It's better than nothing, she says -- but it's still not a long-term fix for her and her kids.
"I really enjoy this life. This is my home place. I moved back here three years ago," she says. "No idea that this was gonna happen, so it's totally changed my plans. I honestly can't imagine staying here."
Without hope for more remedies from the farmers, or help from the industry or regulators, many other neighbors are feeling the same way.
Read more on this story here.
This piece was produced in partnership with WYPR in Baltimore and Virginia Public Radio, as part of a collaboration on issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed. See more stories from that collaborative here.