EASTON — Poultry farmers on the Eastern Shore and across the U.S. are seeing dollar signs after China announced it’s lifting its 5-year ban on U.S. poultry imports — a trade block the country enacted in 2014 following an outbreak of the avian influenza virus.
The Nov. 14 announcement out of Beijing prompted excitement among U.S. poultry industry players because China was a significant buyer, having spent more than $500 million on American poultry products before the ban in 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, poultry growers are “certainly optimistic” that the reopening of the Chinese market “will be a win,” said Jenny Rhodes, co-owner of Deerfield Farms in Centreville and principal agent for the University of Maryland Extension in Queen Anne’s County.
Rhodes said international trade is “always good,” and explained trade with China is important because Chinese buyers, who traditionally tend to buy more chicken feet and dark meat, constitute a “specialty market.”
Although there were no cases of the avian influenza virus confirmed among the products from Eastern Shore farmers during the time of the outbreak, she said her farm, as well as others in the area, were impacted nonetheless.
Rhodes recounted hearing of the ban in December 2014, saying it was “pretty scary.” She said, “just because (the outbreak) was in the United States, the ban was for the whole United States, and they didn’t even look at specific areas.”
“When you hear about (a ban) like that and you know it’s going to affect the markets, you just have to remain positive and move forward and practice good security,” Rhodes said.
Poultry is the leading agricultural product on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, bringing in $268 million in 2018 from contract profits, according to the trade organization Delmarva Poultry Industries.
DPI reported Delmarva chicken farms employed more than 20,000 farmers in 2018, who raised 605 million chickens and processed 4.3 billion pounds of meat out of roughly 5,000 chicken houses during the year.
Most of the poultry products on the Shore are contractually sold to companies such as Perdue Farms, Allen Harim Foods, Mountaire Farms and Coleman Organic, among others, which distribute them to larger markets.
The U.S. is the world’s second largest poultry exporter, reaching $4.3 billion in global exports of poultry meat and products in 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
While Rhodes said she’s excited to see the Chinese market open up again, she acknowledged there always is a looming threat of another outbreak because viruses are easily spread.
Avian influenza, specifically, which she said is carried by small ducks and wild geese, could be dropped and spread through the birds’ feces as they’re flying above farms.
“It’s a matter of picking that up on your shoes and taking it into your poultry house,” Rhodes said. “So (the virus) is here, but we just have to be very careful that we don’t take it in our chicken houses — that’s why we wear different clothes, different boots in there.”
In a press release, the USDA said the U.S. has been free of the virus since 2017 — leading some politicians, and President Donald Trump himself, to credit the Trump administration’s recent trade negotiations with China for the development.
On Nov. 17, Trump tweeted, “Our great Farmers will receive another major round of ‘cash,’ compliments of China Tariffs ... The smaller farms and farmers will be big beneficiaries ... China is starting to buy big again.”
Those who disagree with the notion that Trump influenced China have said he had no control over the decision, and the move was made because China needed a protein alternative after an outbreak of African swine fever devastated its pork products earlier this year.
Despite uncertainty surrounding the basis of China’s decision, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement, “After being shut out of the market for years, U.S. poultry producers and exporters welcome the reopening of China’s market to their products.”
“America’s producers are the most productive in the world and it is critical they be able to sell their bounty to consumers in other parts of the globe,” Perdue said. “We will continue our work to expand market access in important markets like China as well as other countries, to support our producers and U.S. jobs.”