By Marian Burros, Photography by Molly McDonald Peterson
Audiences of the documentary about the horrors of agribusiness, “Food, Inc.,” may remember Morison explaining why many farmers are too intimidated to speak up about anti-competitive practices, the way chickens are raised, and the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria: “The companies keep the farmers under their thumb because of the debt that the farmers have. To build one poultry house is anywhere from $280,000-$300,000 per house. And once you make your initial investment, the companies…constantly come back with demands for upgrades.”
By the time that movie was released in 2009, the family’s chicken contract at their farm on the Delmarva Peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay had already been terminated. Whether it was because Morison had spoken out one too many times against the company’s farming practices, its treatment of contract growers, or its pollution of the Chesapeake Bay — or because the Morisons refused to take on more debt to fulfill the company’s demands — today the 54-year-old Delaware native works full time against the industrial poultry industry, championing local food production and family farmers.
Her already brewing dissatisfaction with the industry came to a head in 1995 when there was a very serious outbreak of a disease that was killing fish in the Pokomoke River, a tributary of the Bay.
“We knew we were part of the problem because of the excessive runoff from the manure spread in the fields,” she said. “We are surrounded by water and a lot of our neighbors were watermen and some were becoming terribly ill.”
At that point she started talking to environmentalists about how the run-off was affecting the water.
Morison says the company she worked for, Perdue Farms, owned the birds and the feed sold to contract growers, but took no ownership of the problems caused by the poultry.
“The company specified in the contract that the only time the chickens belong to us is when they are dead. Yet it expects us to take total responsibility for getting rid of the manure without polluting the waters. We don’t make enough money to consider taking on the manure project.”
Some years the Morisons earned only $8,000; in others, nothing, she said.
The poultry companies, she said, are “in total denial,” claiming the chickens are not responsible for the problems: “It’s not the farms,” they say: “it’s the deer behind the tree or the fox that runs across the field. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard from industry.”
(A 2008 press release from the Delmarva Poultry Institute states the chicken industry plays “a relatively small role” in Chesapeake Bay water pollution. But according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, each year roughly 300 million pounds of polluting nitrogen reaches the Chesapeake Bay, 40 percent of which comes from agricultural runoff. DPI asserts the number is 35 percent.)
Morison and her husband took full-time jobs off the farm to support their family. Even as she raised chickens for the industry by 2006 she had become executive director for the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a labor-community coalition that supported union organizing.
The last straw came when Perdue told the Morisons to totally enclose their chicken houses with solid walls, which the company says promotes the health and welfare of the chickens. Morison says it makes the chicken fatten up faster because the birds become sedentary in total darkness. She said the $150,000 cost of enclosing the sheds would have forced her family to take out a bank loan. They already had a mortgage on the property.
“We refused, and we were terminated in 2008.”
A spokeswoman for Perdue Farms said all of their contract farmers were required to make the change, and that the cost would not have been that high.
Morison got her fire to fight injustice from her father, and her stubbornness from her mother. “My father was always for the underdog. If something were wrong he would always say something. His parents were from Poland and he saw how immigrants were treated. My mother, who was Irish, had a stubborn streak a mile long.”
Today the Morisons’ chicken houses are empty; the farm is rented out. Morison has turned her attention to other unsavory aspects of the poultry industry, especially rights for contract farmers. She faces a fresh fight: the House approved a version of the 2012 spending bill that prohibits the Agriculture Department from implementing GIPSA, a regulation that would give small poultry and livestock growers the right to receive the same pay and treatment as larger growers in their contracts with packers and stockyards. It passed the measure despite the 2008 Farm Bill that explicitly required the new rule to be put in place. At press time the final proposed rule had not been published.
Now a full-time crusader, Morison is also concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the chickens. In May several environmental and public health groups sued the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals.
“One of the greatest hazards to human health we face now and in the next generation is the resistance we see to all our drugs,” said Dr. Lance Price, director of the Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health at the Translational Genomic Research Institute in Arizona. “Poultry workers are at 32 times the risk of carrying resistant bacteria than the rest of the population.”
Price describes Morison as a hero. “She put her own livelihood at risk to help poultry workers. I’m not as brave as she is.”
Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, has spent years studying pollution in the bay and says Morison taught her a great deal about what goes on in a modern chicken house.
“No way I would have come to understand the full range of the problems associated with using antibiotics to raise poultry without her. What she brought to the discussion was the real world experience and how the industry operates.”
Morison has also long opposed the use of arsenic in poultry feed as a growth promoter. The issue made headlines once again this summer when it was determined by the Food and Drug Administration that chickens retain some of the arsenic from Roxarsone in their livers.
“Poultry farmers who use it have knowingly turned their land into a toxic waste dump,” she said. What’s worse, she said, it runs off into the waters, where it remains a persistent pollutant.
Perdue says it stopped using the arsenic feed in 2007. Pfizer, which sold Roxarsone, announced in June it would voluntarily withdraw the product from the market.
Morison isn’t done with chickens yet. Traveling around the country with her husband Frank, who is now an auditor with the Animal Welfare Approved program, she was captivated by an organic poultry farm of 4,000 pasture-raised birds in California. The Morisons plan to convert their once industrial poultry farm to a free-range pasture-based operation. They hope to be producing eggs by the beginning of next year.
“I’m going off on a whole new adventure here at the age of 54,” said Morison, laughing, “and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”
Marian Burros was on staff at the New York Times for 27 years and still writes for the paper. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959, and at one time or other, she worked for the Washington Post, and the late, lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC- TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.