- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The nation’s primary poultry producer yesterday shut down operations at its Berlin, Md., plant, folding the largest private employer in Worcester County.

Tyson Foods Inc., a Springdale, Ark., chicken- and pork-processing company, announced in April plans to close the plant, which employed about 650 workers, in the last financial quarter of the year.

“This was an older plant and there were several challenges with the product mix and the need for capital improvement,” said spokesman Ed Nicholson.

Tyson, which pleaded guilty in June to violating the Clean Water Act at its Sedalia, Mo., plant, spent more than $1.6 million two years ago to build a new water-treatment system at the Berlin plant to filter bacteria and chemicals from wastewater.

In addition to closing the plant, Tyson sold its feed mill in Westover, Md., to Mountaire Farms Inc., a Selbyville, Del., poultry processor, for an undisclosed amount.

The first wave of layoffs came in June, when the plant let go 164 workers.

Some of the employees picked up shifts at nearby poultry plants including Mountaire, Allen’s Family Food Inc. in Seaford, Del., and Perdue Farms Inc.’s Strausburg, Va., facility.

Tyson also has three Virginia processing plants in Temperanceville, Harrisonburg and Richmond, though Mr. Nicholson would not say how many Berlin plant workers have transferred.

Others are living on unemployment and pension checks and using resources at the Lower Shore Workforce Alliance. The Snow Hill, Md., nonprofit group netted $770,000 in federal grants to retrain Tyson workers for new professions.

B.J. Corbin, the alliance’s executive director, said several workers are training to get commercial truck licenses and certification for health care jobs.

Meanwhile, 155 chicken farmers have sought to re-sign contracts with other processing plants, said Worcester County Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

The Berlin plant sent out 1 million hatched chickens to growers weekly, which were later brought back to the plant to be slaughtered, cleaned and packaged.

Mr. Shockley, a chicken farmer who is now raising 110,000 chickens for Allen’s, said he expected about 100 farmers to sign up with other plants.

“If a grower’s [chicken] houses are in good shape, he should be picked up. But these other companies require upgrades that may be too costly for some growers,” he said.

For example, other plants require tunnel ventilation in each chicken house, which costs $25,000 to $41,000 to install.

Jerry Redden, Worcester County’s economic-development director, said the county is working to lure more “value-added” chicken operations to the area, such as Shore Poultry, a start-up chicken-deboning facility.

The local government also designated nearly 200 acres in the northern part of Worcester County for industrial parks.

“I don’t see this plant closing as symptomatic of a decline,” in the poultry industry, Mr. Redden said. “We still have farmers who are investing in poultry houses and they are still the closest farmers to serve the Northeast market.”

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