I travelled from Pennsylvania and Rachel’s childhood home to the historic waterway of Chesapeake Bay. I wanted to see whether the countryside offered clues to Carson’s legacy.
I learned that one of the biggest threats to Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, is the muck from vast numbers of chickens reared industrially in its watershed. It wasn’t long before I found out why:
A farm tractor clanked along with what looked like thick red smoke belching from the back of a long green trailer. It billowed across the adjacent road as reddish-brown lumps sprayed out onto the field behind. Poultry manure was being blown into the air and over the field.
I was on a ‘muck safari’ with local waterkeeper, Kathy Phillips. “The stuff along the ditches and field edges; if it rains could run-off and end up in Chesapeake Bay,” Kathy explained; “The pungent smell of chicken manure being spread is a familiar part of spring here”.
Kathy moved here with her husband in the 1970s to live the beach life. After running for County Commissioner on a clean water ticket, Kathy became local waterkeeper, charged with enforcing federal law protecting the cost of Assateague.
“CAFOs are everywhere in this area,” she told me, using her favoured acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, better known as factory farms. “They only grow corn and soya in these parts to support the area’s poultry industry.”
Poultry manure is used as cheap fertiliser to spread on the fields growing the corn and soya that will end up as chicken feed. At first glance, it’s a virtuous circle: the chickens eat the corn and their droppings replenish tired soils.
The only flaw is the vast number of chickens in such a small area. Chicken manure is heavy in nitrogen and phosphorus, precious nutrients in the right amounts, but too much or at the wrong time and the rain washes it into waterways where it becomes a serious pollutant.
Rachel Carson raised the alarm over widespread use of chemical sprays in the countryside. As it turned out, it was all part of an industrial approach to farming that would see chickens, pigs and cows disappear from the land and into factory farm sheds, their feed grown in pesticide-soaked fields elsewhere.
In my next video exploration – I discover more about how the industrialisation of chicken farming is polluting one of the USA’s best-known coastlines.
To get your copy of Farmageddon: the true cost of cheap meat, click here