When I met Andrew McLean last summer, I was with a group of a dozen journalists on his Ruthsburg chicken farm. We were there as part of a Chesapeake Bay field trip put on by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for reporters from all over the world, which I helped plan.
At McLean’s 350-acre Eastern Shore farm, we had to suit up head-to-toe, with paper booties on our feet and blue jumpsuits over our shorts and t-shirts. We were about to enter his chicken houses, where he kept close to 200,000 birds that he was growing for Perdue Farms.
Many in the group were visiting a chicken farm for the first time. Anticipating the reporters’ possible reactions to industrial farming, McLean, a former banker, explained how automation and computers helped him care for and feed his chickens and operate his six houses without additional labor. He told us that, while he was happy with the operation, he was planning to convert his farm to organic birds. The visiting reporters remarked on how it was much different - as in better, cleaner, and more humane - than they had expected.
By the time I saw McLean again a few days ago, he had completed the conversion of his farming operation. Then, he grew for Perdue Farms. Now, he grows for Coleman Natural, an organic company that Perdue bought a few years ago. Perdue saw that more customers wanted to know what was in their chicken and their eggs, and were seeking out labels like “organic,” and “no antibiotics” for chicken, and “cage-free” for eggs. McLean noticed the same trends.
To become a Coleman grower, McLean, 50, had to change several aspects of his farm. He still has six chicken houses, but the flocks spend much of their day outside. They are able to come and go, but in the morning, he says, they rush out. Free range is a requirement for organic certification, according to Coleman’s web site, but not all free-range chickens are raised organic.
They receive a special organic feed from grain grown without pesticides, and get no antibiotics. When they get sick, he gives them oregano; he jokes that makes the chicken house smell like a pre-seasoned bird ready to cook.
Why go organic?
“I wanted a new challenge,” he said. “If this is what the customers want, then I want to be on the cutting edge.”
I ran into McLean at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore, where he was part of Origins, a speakers’ series focused on where our food comes from that is hosted by chef Spike Gjerde and organized by sustainable food advocate Dana Slater. McLean shared the stage with the owners of two smaller livestock operations: Will Morrow of Whitmore Farm near Frederick, and Beau Ramsburg of Rettland Farm near Gettysburg. Both Morrow and Ramsburg sell their pigs and chickens to Gjerde’s flagship Baltimore restaurant, Woodberry Kitchen, which is known for its locally sourced ingredients. (The two farmers say they are not certified organic, though their animals are free range. Both said they would rather purchase local feed and work with local suppliers than go for organic standards.)
Gjerde asked McLean about the mega farms coming to the Eastern Shore. Hundreds of new chicken houses have been permitted in Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties in Maryland and in Virginia’s Accomack County. Many of the new operations have more than 10 large chicken houses on small lots that are close to homes. McLean’s farm is more of the old style - it’s in the country, surrounded by other farms. But around Princess Anne and Salisbury, chicken houses are cropping up nearer to subdivisions.
McLean acknowledged the business model is changing. For the economics to work, he said, “24 chicken houses is probably the right size.” That would allow the farmer to scale up, hire labor, maximize efficiency, he said. But, McLean told the audience at Artifact that he’s not interested in getting bigger.
“I’m not going to expand,” he explained, “because this is what I can take care of myself.”
All three farmers said they did not treat the outdoor waste from their animals. It becomes fertilizer for the soil on the land, and helps the grass grow. With the waste from his birds spread across the large yard and not concentrated in the chicken houses, McLean said, there is almost no smell of ammonia on his farm – though he said he runs the ventilation fans far more frequently, as required by the organic standards.
It’s not clear that raising organic birds in large quantities is better for the waterways than conventional chicken farming. In an article I wrote for Modern Farmer, Russ Brinsfield, a scientist, farmer and Eastern Shore mayor, told me that the organic standards focus on what birds eat, not so much on what comes out the other end. Could the birds produce less manure if they consume organic feed and exercise outside more? Brinsfield said it’s possible, but it hadn’t been studied.
One thing McLean is certain of - the chickens are growing a little more slowly, and fewer are dying prematurely under organic rules. His flocks’ survival, he said, is 98 percent, which is the highest he’s seen. And the chickens are enjoying being outdoors -- with ramps and boxes in their fenced exercise areas to give them something to do all day.
After years of lending money to chicken farmers, he told me, he realized he could make poultry farming work. It provides instant cash flow, and it made sense for his 350 acres, which was too small to generate enough revenue as a grain farm alone. And, he said, poultry is what we do on the shore.
He hasn’t looked back. As he told the group:
“Banking is not really a hard job to give up these days.”