By Dannielle Lipinski
I pulled a long white smock over my plastic sealed boots and zipped it up to my neck as the late summer's rainstorm drummed against the curved metal roof above. I carefully put my ponytail into a hairnet and listened as we were told the various safety notices posted on the entry wall. The dozen of us looked ready to go into some scientific lab or microchip clean room. We were actually about to meet Perdue organic chickens on a farm on the eastern shore.
It was a rainy Monday morning on August 7th when we were invited to a tour of Perdue Farms. Our first stop in the morning was at a farm in Henderson, Maryland where they grow organic chickens. We drove down the long gravel driveway to the long buildings that housed the chickens, we were greeted by Mike Levengood, Vice President Chief Animal Care Officer and Farmer Relationship Advocate and Steve Levitsky , Vice President of Sustainability.
While securing our lab-like uniforms to enter the chicken house, Mike and Steve began to tell us about the chickens we were about to meet. Perdue is an integrator and the chicks were Global Animal Partnership certified. Hundreds of chicks, no more than 11 days old, scattered as we entered the chicken house; their soft down feathered bodies scampering across the expanse of wood chip bedding and over small ramp pallets dispersed throughout the chicken house. Organic houses like this house are required to have two organic “enrichments” per 1000 chickens, and they have sunlight, outdoor access, and are fed with organic feed. Once the chickens are 21 days old, and if the temperature outside is not too hot or cold, the farmer opens the gates and lets the chickens venture outside. The farmer planted organic grass seed and plants in the outside enclosure and lets the chickens peck around.
For a chicken house to be certified organic, the ground on the farm must be treated and maintained with organic plants and products for three straight years. Before the farm was a chicken house, it grew organic fruits and vegetables so it was a shorter transition to an organic chicken farm. Due to the lag time between converting a traditional chicken house to an organically certified house, the chicks grown and marketed from there are labeled GMO- free (Genetically Modified Organism).
Perdue Farms also stated their willingness to become environmental stewards and work with neighbors and the relationships built in government and communities to find a solution for all. Our final stop on the tour was actually in our neighboring state at the Perdue AgriRecycle in Seaford, Delaware. This facility is recently opened in January 2017 and began to compost litter produced by the chicken houses nearby. Right now they are selling compost to sell in nurseries. They are operating at 15,000lbs and working on a permit to expand to 35,000 lbs.
My biggest take-away from our time with Perdue Farms was the power of consumer and the strength of voting with our wallets. The business philosophy in Perdue Farms responding to consumer demands for organic and the health of chickens has transformed their practices to better reflect this. As the political voice for the environment, we believe in the power of community to of protect our air, land, water, and public health. We are grateful to Perdue Farms, that they took the time to give us a full day tour of their operations. As agriculture is a large part of the Eastern Shore economy, we look forward to continuing the dialogue with Perdue Farms to ensure environmental protections.