When Merle Grass opened the door to one of his big Route 3 barns in Belfast, rays of dusty sunshine filtered in to illuminate an undulating sea of chickens.
Through the dim light, the 9,000 nearly grown hens roamed the open floor of the barn, their brown feathers fluttering in the breeze created by an industrial ventilation system. Some birds were inquisitive, while others concentrated on pecking their feed and getting a drink of water.
Their quiet clucking was the sound of the end of an era, according to 77-year-old Grass, a longtime Waldo County chicken grower. He estimates that he has raised 25 million chickens over the last 50 years.
“This is the last flock,” Grass said earlier this month. “When they go out, there will be no more chickens raised in Maine.”
It’s a big statement, but state veterinarian Dr. Don Hoenig said that as far as the large-scale Maine chicken industry goes, it’s likely accurate.
“It’s been a significant economic engine for certain parts of the state, and certainly Merle has raised a lot of [chickens],” Hoenig, a Belfast resident, said. “He’s not ready to quit. He’s a tough old guy, and he knows a lot, but he’s being forced out by this decision.”
‘Up the creek’
Grass most recently has been working for Maine Contract Farming in Turner, a company that is part of Austin “Jack” DeCoster’s egg empire. Grass, along with contract farming operations in Montville, Searsport, Monroe, Pownal and Leeds, raises day-old chicks until they are hens old enough to lay eggs of their own — about five months old, Hoenig said. When the birds come of age, they’re shipped to Quality Egg of New England in Turner — another DeCoster-owned company — or Dorothy Egg in Winthrop.
These hens, including Grass’s final shipment, replace the 4 million birds now laying eggs for Maine’s industrial egg industry. But recently, management at Quality Egg of New England has decided to raise the birds in its Ohio hatchery, Hoenig said, leaving Maine farmers without a market.
“I think it’s sad,” Barbara Grass said of the demise of her husband’s business. “Everything there is to know about a chicken, he knows.”
Repeated efforts to contact Quality Egg of New England were unsuccessful.
According to Grass, most of the other contract farms where chickens have been raised for Quality Egg were already out of business by mid-May with McNear Farms in North Leeds the last to have its chickens taken away.
Katharine McNear, who started raising chickens with her husband in 1957, said Thursday that there were only 1,000 chickens left. The family will leave its massive chicken houses standing, at least for a few months, in case “somebody else” might be interested in raising birds to lay cage-free eggs, she said.
“Once it’s empty, we’re done,” she said. “It leaves us really up the creek. It’s hard to know where to turn.”
Feathers on the lawn
Inside Merle and Barbara Grass’ tidy farmhouse, cute chickens feature strongly in the decor. It seems fitting, for this is a household that has been shaped by the once-bustling Belfast poultry industry that gave the city its title as “The Broiler Capital of the World.”
Although Grass’ career is ending with him raising egg-laying chickens, it began with the rise of Belfast’s meat poultry industry.
After Grass returned home from the Korean War, he took a job as a feed delivery truck driver in 1955, then began raising broilers — or meat chickens — for Penobscot Poultry, one of the city’s two poultry processing plants.
Barbara Grass reminisced about growing up during Waldo County’s manufacturing heyday, when residents worked hard making shoes and clothing and processing chickens and sardines, and it seemed as if everyone knew everyone else.
“Friday nights, you’d go down Main Street to McLellan’s store. We’d park up on the sidewalk and see the people go by,” Barbara Grass said. “It was kind of a warm, friendly feeling.”
Belfast’s long association with poultry started in the Great Depression after a Massachusetts family began trucking Waldo County chickens to markets in Boston and New York, according to the book “History of Belfast in the 20th Century” by Jay Davis and Tim Hughes.
During World War II, red meat was rationed, and poultry became more popular, Davis wrote, and returning servicemen were able to take out GI loans for poultry farming.
By 1948, Maplewood Poultry Co. and Penobscot Poultry were big businesses in the area, and the annual Broiler Day festival with its crowning of the Broiler Queen had begun.
“Chickens are what drove our economy,” said Megan Pinette, president of the Belfast Historical Society.
Part of the reason for the industry’s success in Belfast was that the labor force was “willing and cheap,” the city had convenient rail access for shipments of grain from the Midwest and the ocean at that time was considered the perfect receptacle for poultry waste products, according to the book.
“The bay was horrible,” Pinette said. “It was probably the most polluted harbor on the East Coast.”
By the time she moved to town in 1983, Belfast Bay largely had been cleaned up, but she vividly remembers a giant mat made of congealed chicken feathers, guts and oil that would drift in and out with the tides.
She recalled that escaped chickens would run around the downtown processing plants and people would “snap them up.”
“A Union Street woman would have to go out and rake the feathers off her lawn on a daily basis,” Pinette said. “People have told me that when they got into Belfast, they’d roll up their windows and hold their noses. That was the impression of Belfast until the 1990s.
The 1970s were the beginning of the end for the poultry industry, which was starting to be squeezed by environmental concerns, competition from producers in the Delmarva Peninsula [Delaware, Maryland and Virginia] and Maine’s higher costs of doing business, according to Davis and Hughes.
When Maplewood filed for bankruptcy and shut down in 1980, hundreds of factory workers were without jobs. When Penobscot Poultry closed in early 1988, 400 more poultry workers were jobless and the $200 million-a-year industry was gone for good, according to “History of Belfast.”
While official U.S. Census records show that the city’s population grew 1.8 percent to 6,355 in the decade between 1980 and 1990, those numbers belie what City Manager Joseph Slocum describes as a time of massive upheaval after the industry collapse.
“It was devastating to Belfast,” he said. “There was no money, and huge unemployment rates. People who had lived here all their lives had to migrate to find work. There were some really, really hard years in Belfast.”
For the city, which also had seen the demise of shoe and clothing manufacturing, it seemed as if it was suddenly at the end of the line.
In addition to the economic difficulties, Belfast found itself in a massive community shift, Slocum said. Factory work, though physically difficult and low-paying, had played an important role in the city’s civic life. People talked about Little League and local politics when working on the line, and suddenly, that connection was gone, too.
“Now that we’ve gone to offices and computers and fax machines, we’re not standing shoulder-to-shoulder anymore,” Slocum said. “We don’t have that common, day-to-day interaction with each other.”
Although the town slowly came back to life, it hasn’t fully recovered the sense of community that had existed before, he said. The Belfast poultry vacuum was partially filled with an inward migration of artists and other creative types who were drawn by the affordable cost of living. A few years later, credit card giant MBNA moved to the city and helped it with an enormous makeover — including purchasing and razing the abandoned Penobscot Poultry processing plant on the waterfront and turning that site into a beautifully groomed park.
“We just keep reinventing ourselves,” Pinette said. “I think we have a very strong and resilient people here. Creative, too.”
Hopes and worries
Grass said that something profoundly simple helped him survive in the poultry industry for more than two decades after Penobscot Poultry went out of business.
“I stayed going when other guys gave up,” Grass said.
Being successful at raising poultry has a lot to do with problem-solving, he said, pointing out the mechanical devices that allow him to care for all those chickens. Until very recently, Grass raised poultry in four barns in Belfast and Waldo, but 72,000 of the birds perished in a barn fire this January on Back Searsport Road. Even with that misfortune, he would rather not be essentially forced to retire.
“A good chicken grower is one who keeps things working,” he said.
Local officials hope that problem-solving attitude and work ethic is still part of Belfast’s makeup. Slocum thinks it is.
“We think in Belfast, and around Belfast in the future, there will be real opportunity for more locally grown opportunities and processing opportunities,” he said. “There is a huge, huge food market from the tip of Maine through Georgia. The northeastern U.S. is one of the most heavily populated parts of the country. The question is, how do we compete?”
With more concern about how food is grown and how far it must travel to get to market, Belfast seems a little bit less off the beaten track, according to Slocum.
“There are opportunities for creative, entrepreneurial efforts in that whole field,” he said. “There is an opportunity for this chunk of Maine to have a national and international reputation as producing some of the finest food products in the world.”
But Pinette, pointing out the Belfast Historical Society and Museum’s collections of old photographs that show Belfast as a thriving little city with many different businesses, said that she has some concerns.
“That’s what helped save us in the past — there was a diversity,” she said. “But now, I’m getting a little worried. There was a time when there were 800 or 900 people going to work in downtown Belfast … now, winter is quiet in downtown.”