Clusters of six or more now common in Sussex

Chickens were primarily a source of eggs in the United States until 1923, when Cecilia Steele of Ocean View ordered 50 chicks and was mistakenly sent 500. She opted to raise them all anyway and made a pretty penny selling them for meat. Other farmers quickly followed suit, and the American chicken industry was born - with Delmarva at the heart.

Now, we’re getting close to the 100th anniversary of that lucrative mistake. The industry has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to science. In 2016, almost 595 million broiler chickens were raised on Delmarva with a collective value of about $3 billion.

The most meaningful change in the chicken industry over the years is vertical integration, meaning each stage is controlled by one entity, from egg incubation to the processing of the meat. Perdue, Allen Harim and Mountaire are all examples.

Eggs laid by breeder chickens are taken to a hatchery to incubate for 21 days. Once they hatch, chicks are immediately delivered to a farmer, usually the same day. At the farm, they’re placed on the floor of a chicken house, where they’ll live and grow for anywhere from six to 10 weeks, depending on the desired size, before being slaughtered and processed for meat.

The growth stage of the chicken industry provides an opportunity for family farms, which contract with integrators to raise the chickens. A few decades ago, it was common to find a family farm with just one or two chicken houses. That’s not the case anymore.

There are eight chicken houses being built right now on a swath of land on Seashore Highway near Georgetown, across the road from Elmer’s Market and Fat Daddy’s BBQ. You’ll find eight more off Route 16 on the western side of Ellendale, six on Rabbit Run Road in Bridgeville and six on Shortly Road near Georgetown, just to name a few. Over in Frankford, on Gum Road, you’ll find over 20 chicken houses - with still more being built.

The modern chicken farmer

On a back road full of farms near Bridgeville, 53-year-old Wanda Loockerman skirts the past and present of the chicken industry. She keeps three chicken houses for Mountaire while her husband works a different full-time job.

“This is our retirement fund,” she said. “My husband wasn’t sure we were going to have enough.”

The Loockermans obtained a loan of almost $1 million a couple years ago to have the ultra-modern houses built, which feature automated temperature control, lighting, feeding and watering. Wanda gets text alerts from their software on her phone.

“We’ll have it paid off in our 60s,” she said. “It normally takes 15 years for the payoff.”

What Wanda means is that in 15 years, she and her husband will have earned enough money raising chickens to pay off the loan and start banking the income.

The Loockermans have five children and 15 grandchildren. All those people come in handy on a chicken farm: one son is considered the manager and a teenage grandson helps. Between the two of them and Wanda, each chicken house gets at least three walk-throughs a day.

James Fisher, communications manager at the Delmarva Poultry Industry, explained the importance of walk-throughs.

“The grower is in the chicken houses several times a day, walking the whole length of the house to make sure chickens still have access to food … [and] fresh water, and to make sure the temperature of the chicken house is just right,” he said. “And growers are checking several times a day for any signs of sick or injured birds.”

While Wanda’s daily duties are important, modern poultry growers get quite a bit of help from technology.

“When I was a little girl and my father was raising chickens, we fed them by hand. It’s so different now,” she said.

Bigger chickens, bigger houses

If you drive around Sussex County long enough, you can see for yourself the changes chicken houses have gone through. In more than a few places, you’ll find a rundown but still standing 1980s chicken house, and across the street, a handful of the mammoth new models.

According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service, in the 1980s chicken houses were about 16,000 square feet, or 400 feet long and 40 feet wide. Today’s chicken houses are usually 36,000 square feet, or 600 feet long and 60 feet wide.

And the houses aren’t the only thing bigger. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, broiler chickens in the 1980s averaged around 4 pounds. Today’s average 6 pounds.

“The increase in bird weight over the years results from breeding – matching fast-growing roosters with fast-growing hens, generation after generation,” Fisher said.

Yet there are fewer chicken houses on Delmarva than there were 20 years ago, and fewer chickens, too.

“We are not, today, in a situation where there is more chicken farming going on than ever. That point came in the 1990s,” Fisher said.

In 1996, about 612 million broiler chickens were produced. In 2016, that number was 595 million. Chicken houses numbered around 6,000 in 1996, compared to 4,700 now.

However, the poundage of chicken produced is higher than ever - over 4 billion pounds in 2016as compared to about 3 billion pounds in 1996.

As for the Loockermans, their chicken houses are the modern average of 36,000 square feet, with about 40,000 birds in each. Their chickens are grown to 8 or 9 pounds – a bit more than the average.

Zoning matters

Chicken farms have undergone consolidation since the 1980s, when there were about 7,000 growers on Delmarva. The number started falling in the 1990s, and in 2016 there were just 1,736 growers.

Fisher said in the past, raising chickens was something of a side hustle. Families might have had a house or two to supplement their income. Nowadays, growers are likely to have more houses because raising chickens is usually the grower’s main occupation. Technological advances that help to manage the flocks haven’t hurt, either.

Another factor contributing to the growing size of the farms and the dwindling number of farmers is increasing government regulation, which raises the cost of entering the business. A few decades ago, most places didn’t require a building permit for chicken houses.

“Nutrient management plans, manure sheds, stormwater [regulations] – compliance with it all requires time and money commitments on the farmer’s part,” Fisher said.

New game, new rules?

The changes in the way the industry does business – fewer farmers, bigger houses in clusters of four or more – has caused some people to take notice, like Jeff Frey.

Frey, 58, owns Fat Daddy’s BBQ on Seashore Highway in Georgetown, across the busy two-lane road from where there will soon be eight massive chicken houses. He belongs to “Route 404 Lives Matter,” a group of neighbors opposed to the operation.

“This road is already very dangerous. The traffic is my main concern,” he said. “And the smell. I do have outdoor seating, and I imagine this is the last summer I’ll be able to have that.”

Bigger chicken farms have prompted some places, like nearby Wicomico County, Md., to require more space between chicken houses and buildings on other properties. Some members of Route 404 Lives Matter are calling for bigger changes, like an entirely new zoning category.

At the moment, Sussex County officials have no plans to address larger-than-average agricultural operations.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R—Georgetown, said he understands citizen concerns, but deferred to the county.

“If there is to be discussion surrounding zoning requirements for larger-scale poultry operations, now is the opportune time to bring these ideas to [the] county council, as they are currently undergoing revisions to their comprehensive plan.”