Raising, processing and marketing chicken is Delaware agriculture’s main economic engine. Seventy cents of every dollar earned on a Delaware farm is earned by the chicken community. This $1.7 billion industry, though, operates out of sight and out of mind for many Delawareans.
Thousands of jobs depend on chicken
Direct employment by Delaware’s chicken industry adds up to 3,500 jobs, according to a 2016 study by John Dunham & Associates. Nearly as many supplier jobs — 2,900 positions — rely on chicken. In 2016, the industry drove $3.3 billion in total economic activity throughout Delaware. Which jobs? Chicken farmers, of course — there are more than 700 family farms raising chickens here. And there are thousands of additional jobs in chicken-processing companies like Allen Harim, Mountaire and Perdue Farms, which moving its agribusiness division from Maryland to Sussex County.
Most chicken is sold domestically
The export market does matter to chicken, but most chicken produced in Delaware is sold and consumed in the U.S., in the mid-Atlantic States. About 10 percent of Delmarva-produced chicken is exported to other countries. Canada and Mexico are the biggest customers.
The grain market
Delmarva’s chicken companies purchased $980 million in grain crops last year, milling corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops to become chicken feed. Much of that grain was grown in or near Delmarva.
All chicken we buy is hormone-free and steroid-free
One of the biggest misconceptions American consumers have about chicken is that the birds farmers raise are given artificial hormones and steroids to make them grow to market size faster. The truth is using artificial hormones or steroids to produce chicken has been illegal under federal law since the 1950s.
So how do chickens grow as quickly as they do on a modern farm? It’s thanks to advanced research into their optimal diet, the climate conditions farmers should achieve in a chicken house, and better breeding, with scientists having bred different kinds of chickens together over the years with an eye on selecting fast-growing traits. These advances mean today’s chickens require 7 percent less feed per pound of growth than the chickens farmers raised 25 years ago.
Organic chicken and conventional chicken
The majority of grocery stores that sell chicken stock “conventionally raised” chicken on their shelves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Conventional, in this context, means those chickens can be fed genetically modified crops, which are perfectly safe to consume, and it means that farmers, working with veterinarians, can administer antibiotics to a flock to treat illness.
Organic chicken is stocked in about 13 percent of U.S. grocery stores. To be labeled organic, chickens must be fed grains that are certified as organic, meaning they are non-GMO crops and have not had persistent pesticides or chemical fertilizers applied to them.
James Fisher is communications manager for Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., an 1,800-member trade organization based in Georgetown.