Farms and Chickens Meet Their Doom

My brother and I are trying to sell 280 acres of mixed farm/forest land near Laurel, Delaware. This has been an education in the value, or lack of it, of some rural land these days.

Chuck and I inherited this land from our mother upon her death in 2005. Her father, our grandfather, had been born and raised on Spring Garden Farm, only a few miles away. Her grandfather, our great-grandfather, bought the acreage in 1928 and gave it to our mother—for reasons known only to himself– when she was ten years old.

Since the first railroad line came to Southern Delaware in 1859, the region raised fruits and vegetables for east coast markets, especially Philadelphia. By the time our grandfather was growing up on Spring Garden Farm in the late 1800s, tomatoes were the big cash crop, sold to local canneries for $6/ton. Our grandfather told us that this is how his parents paid for his college tuition.

The canneries went out of business many years ago, and in the 20th century southern Delaware could not compete with California in the market for fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers could still grow grain, but land in southern Delaware tends to be low and soggy. Such areas are often designated as “wetlands,” which means they cannot be cleared for expanded cultivation. So what is this land good for now?

When our mother’s estate cleared probate in 2007, there was a brief interval when we might have found a buyer interested in subdividing the land for residential development. That market blew away with the wind in 2008 and has not yet returned to southern Delaware. The land is too soggy to be cleared for further farming beyond the 42 acres already under cultivation. The trees on it were cut about 25 years ago, but the replanted seedlings didn’t take, so the current timber isn’t worth much. We tried marketing the land as a country retreat and hunting preserve, but no one was interested. We began to understand, if not to forgive, one neighbor just down the road (the road being Route 9, a major east-west artery) who sold similar land for its topsoil, leaving behind a big muddy ditch.

What the land is good for is raising chickens. This is now the big business in southern Delaware: Sussex County is the nation’s largest producer of meat chicken. When I was on the phone recently with a local farmwife who lives near the land we own, she that it was a special day, one she and her husband always looked forward to: at 1 PM the “serviceman” was coming to pick up 6000 chickens from them. I asked her to tell me more about this. She said they raise ca. 6000 chickens at a time (fewer in the summer, when because of the heat there are fewer chickens in each house) to the age of about 7 1/2 or 8 weeks. Then they are picked up by Perdue, Tyson, Mountaire, or one of the other major poultry businesses to be taken, in her words, “to their doom.”

She went on to explain that raising chickens had become an important source of income when farming is not good. I asked when chicken-raising started to be a serious business in southern Delaware. She said that her father was one of the first to do it, possibly in the 1920s and certainly by the 1930s. She mentioned giving a photograph of her father holding chicken crate to an acquaintance who has set up a small museum of the chicken industry next to his home in Selbyville, Delaware. In other words, the chicken industry was just getting started at the time my mother was given the 280 acres of mixed farm and forest land that my brother and I now hold.

The industry may be good for the economy of Sussex County, but it doesn’t do much for land prices. It takes a lot less space to raise 6000 chickens, who have a market value of something like $6/pound, than to raise tomatoes, with a wholesale value of $6/ton. My brother and I are at this point planning to enlist our acreage in a state agricultural preservation program, which reduces taxes on the land in return for a promise to keep it as working cropland. Then we would sell it to a local farmer who will continue to cultivate what is already cleared. We figure our ancestors would be pleased to see the land continue to be farmed. However, we have to wonder how much longer crop-based farming will survive in southern Delaware, with its uncertain climate and low-lying soil. Maybe these farms, like the chickens, are doomed.

(For more on the history of chicken-raising in Sussex County, Delaware, see a recent article in the New York Times that gives the date of 1923 as the start of the industry:

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