FARMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Over the course of a few years, a quiet rural neighborhood nestled in a region characterized by poultry pride will have a true test of faith: almost 1.5 million clucking neighbors.
Two large poultry operations in the state will be jammed into just over one square mile of southern Kent County, near Farmington. At peak production, more chickens would be produced a year there than there are people in Delaware. It would mean 18-wheeler trucks would roll down the narrow, winding back roads hauling away hundreds of thousands of chickens every six to eight weeks.
The separately owned plans call for one operation of 10 chicken houses and one of 20 chicken houses. Each house is a long building that can house between 35,000 and 50,000 birds at a time. The operations would grow broiler chickens for two industry heavy-hitters, Perdue and Mountaire Farms.
If fully built out, the 20-house project would be the largest operation in the state, by a wide margin.
Given the plans, residents, county and state officials are concerned huge operations like these could become a trend in Delaware’s rural, populated areas that would not require any forewarning to neighbors who may have health, infrastructure and quality of life concerns.
Some neighbors who live in the area, like a few who have their own operations with one or two chicken houses, say they support growing chickens. But the two large operations planned aren’t the mom and pop growers that benefit from Delaware’s ‘Right to Farm’ law. They’re commercial operations abusing the state’s lax law, they said.
“It’s not a normal farming operation. It is a megafarm,” said Danny Russum, who lives nearby and has his own chicken houses. “Yeah, it’s agriculture because the product is a farm product. But the operation is not a normal farming operation.”
“The quality of life is going to change. Period. Boom,” Russum said.
The way the law is written, anyone can put as many chicken houses on a plot of agriculturally zoned land as they want. There’s nothing to stop it from a zoning perspective, said Rep. Bobby Outten, a Harrington Republican.
“I think the horse is out of the barn here,” he said. “We aren’t going to do too much here now, but we need to get it changed so it doesn’t happen again.”
The two proposed operations are well above the average for a new chicken farm, which is somewhere between three and five houses at one site, said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Association.
“Even 10 is larger than the norm,” he said. “It is an unusual situation, but it shows that this property owner and the chicken companies have great faith that they can make a go of it in Delaware.”
It is unclear how the 20-house site will operate. The owners, Matthew and Yvette Hudyma, were unavailable to comment.
It’s not clear if these plans are an anomaly, or the start of a trend.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Kent County Commissioner Eric Buckson. “It’s unprecedented. Twenty chicken houses on one farm is a game-changer for the state, the county and all of the folks involved.”
Buckson is holding a meeting Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Kent County Levy Court to discuss the projects.
So far, building permits for 12 houses at the 20-house site and all 10 houses at the 10-house site have been approved.
The plan is to build four houses at a time. Each house is roughly 67 feet wide and 657 feet long, according to plans filed with the county. The plans filed with the county call for 20 on the two plots of land, 52 and 42 acres.
The land was purchased in 2013 for nearly $462,000.
Bill Massey, vice president for live production at Mountaire Farms, said they have contracted with the Hudymas operation to buy from 12 houses. The 12 will be spread across two parcels of land, 8 on one, 4 on the other.
“There aren’t going to be 20 there, not with us,” he said. “We just don’t want that many houses in one site.”
There would be concerns about the impact it would have on the community and for the company. If the birds were to have diseases, there would be too many across 20 houses to manage, Massey said.
The 10-house operation on 77 acres of land down the road was bought for $512,000 in April 2013 by Daim Farms LLC. The owner listed on the plans, Ghulam Gujar, said he is producing for Perdue. He expected to produce 450,000 chickens a year.
He said he has four other houses that produce for Perdue in the state.
Delaware’s Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee said he’s fine with the projects, as long as they meet the engineering and stormwater requirements
“I support agriculture. On the other hand, there are some locations that a large operation may not be the best fit,” he said. “Certainly, I understand the residents’ concerns, I really do. I think this should be open for discussion if this is going to be a trend.”
Building this many houses requires a lot of capital, said Bill Brown, who works with the University of Delaware’s poultry extension service. The industry is definitely becoming more commercialized, but having that many houses in one area is a “fluke,” he said. It’s extremely cost-prohibitive, he added.
Technological advances in how chicken houses are run and maintained have made them expensive propositions that require them to be strategically placed on land, which is at a premium. But 20 houses on one site, even 10, is a lot, Brown said.
With that many chickens comes a lot of manure, roughly 4,200 tons of it a year; 2,812 tons alone from the 20-house site, Kee said. That’s the combined weight of 105 18-wheeler trucks.
Delaware produces about 350,000 tons of chicken manure a year and roughly 800,000 on the Delmarva Peninsula. The 20-house site is a “big operation, there is no denying that, but I’m also not saying it can’t be managed properly,” Kee said.
The Department of Agriculture is responsible for monitoring the smell and any site with over 37,500 chickens has to submit a nutrient management plan, which details how the manure will be stored, spread and hauled away.
A planned chicken growing operation in Kent County on land behind the home of Daryl Sharp, has him and other residents irate and state and local officials concerned Delaware’s law on agricultural operations is being abused to create megafarms.
Situated between the two sites, ground zero, is the Sharp family farm. Betty Sharp, in her 80s, and her now-deceased husband bought the farm back in the 1950s. They had several kids and raised their own chickens.
No matter which way the wind blows, they’ll likely catch a whiff.
Betty Sharp said she’ll take it as long as she can stand it, but there could be a day where they’d have to sell. The question is, who’d even buy?
Two of her sons, Stanley and Daryl, have moved back in with her. The potential impact of the houses is a huge question mark over the future of the family’s homestead, they said.
“I don’t know what happens when you have 10, 20, chicken houses,” Daryl Sharp said. “That takes it to the next level.”