Delmarva's Outstanding Chicken Growers for 2020 Named

Delmarva Chicken Association announced the recipients of its Outstanding Grower awards, honoring 10 farm families in Delmarva's chicken community with recognition as exemplary farmers raising broiler chickens. Each grower is an independent farmer raising chickens under contract for one of Delmarva's chicken companies.

"Our growers often serve as examples for the chicken community and the nation," said Holly Porter, DCA's executive director. "When growers stand and speak at meetings and public hearings, their voices command attention and respect. When they share their everyday rewards and challenges on social media, they help their neighbors understand how chickens are raised. And they are valued in their communities by all who understand their roles as stewards of the land."

The following growers were honored (more detail about each grower follows, and high-resolution photos are available on Flickr):

  • Steve Brittingham of Millsboro, Del., a grower for Mountaire Farms who retired from a long career as a Mountaire flock advisor before buying his chicken farm.
  • Craig Davidson of Frankford, Del., a grower for Amick Farms. Davidson is a second-generation chicken grower.
  • Donnie Howard of Crisfield, Md., a grower for Tyson who has been recognized as an outstanding grower three times in the past four years.
  • John & Patrick Kelley, growers for Mountaire Farms. Helped by co-farm manager Isaac Enriquez, the Kelleys operate an 11-house farm.
  • Vickie Lambden of Bridgeville, Del., a grower for Perdue Farms. Lambden has raised chickens for 25 years.
  • Jim Marvel of Ellendale, Del., a grower for Allen Harim. Marvel achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a chicken grower when he built his farm in 2018.
  • Far and Val Nasir of Pocomoke City, Md., growers for Perdue Farms. Far Nasir also serves on DCA's Board of Directors, and they started their farm in 2013 after transitioning from careers in grocery store management.
  • Joel Peterman, a grower for Mountaire Farms. Peterman and his wife, Kayla, recently worked with DCA to install vegetative environmental buffers on their farm.
  • Blair Shockley, a grower for Perdue Farms. He and his wife, Julie, have raised chickens since 2002 and built two houses of their own in 2015.
  • Susan Steen, a grower for Amick Farms. Steen is a second-generation chicken grower, and her family also has a grain operation.

While Outstanding Growers are customarily honored at the Delmarva Chicken Association Booster Banquet in April, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Booster Banquet's cancellation this year meant DCA needed to recognize these growers in a different way. DCA staff visited the growers' farms over the spring and summer to congratulate them and deliver an engraved silver Revere bowl to each recipient. The growers also received lane signs that can be displayed at the entrances to their farms acknowledging them as 2020 outstanding producers.

Here are the stories of the 2020 Outstanding Growers

  • Steve Brittingham - Millsboro, Del.

    With one chicken house on his farm that holds 18,400 birds in a flock, Steve Brittingham has one of the smaller poultry operations in Delmarva's chicken community. But, he says, the keys to a chicken grower's success are the same no matter the size of his or her operation.

    "I know of many larger farms, and the people who have them are committed, and they do well. There's room for all sizes," Brittingham said. "Whether you've got my one house or eight houses, you've got to adapt yourself to what you've got to do to do well." Brittingham, a Mountaire Farms grower, knows his way around farms large and small, having retired in May from a long career with Mountaire as a flock supervisor manager. He and a six-person team monitored Delmarva chicken farms and helped their grower owners carry out Mountaire's live production plans.

    "You're always looking for things to improve on the farm. Don't stop – it keeps coming at you," Brittingham said. "You've got to look for that edge, and how to outperform everybody else."

    Brittingham is in his chicken house three to four times a day, checking water lines, feed pans and in-house climate systems. With his birds only steps away from his home near Millsboro, it's easy to reach the chicken house anytime there's a problem to solve. "You've got to be committed to it and you've got to have a sense of urgency," he says. "If you see something's broke, get it fixed. If you see something coming down the road that could help you, get after it – don't wait. And attention to detail – the least little thing, you've got to be on it. Those will get you good numbers."

  • Craig Davidson - Frankford, Del.

    Craig Davidson knew what it takes to raise chickens long before he purchased his farm fifteen years ago; a 19-year career as a flock supervisor on Delmarva taught him those skills. When a farmer he serviced was ready to sell, Davidson was ready to buy, and he now raises broiler chickens for Amick Farms on his three-house farm. A flock for him is about 66,000 birds at a time.

    "I learned a lot from other growers when I was servicing chickens," Davidson said. "I like to focus on one thing; I zero in on these birds. One thing I tell my family is, the dollars are in the details. Take care of the details and you'll usually make out pretty good."

    For Davidson, raising chickens is a full-time job, and he devotes full workdays to it. With a 6 a.m. cup of coffee he walks the property, inspecting the chicken houses from the outside, and by 7:30 a.m. he's put his only-on-the-farm shoes on to enter the houses – a biosecurity precaution. "If anything's broke, I deal with it then. I don't put it off until the next day," Davidson said. "Whatever needs to happen, I do it that same day." After afternoon and evening checks on the flock, he relies on data tools that show him on a smartphone what conditions are inside the chicken houses to reassure himself during the night.

    I don't think you're going to find a more environmentally conscious group than poultry farmers," Davidson said. "We want it right – we want the compost right, dealing with the manure right. The bookkeeping, the recordkeeping that goes into it, being certified and having what you need. I live right here, and that's our incentive to keep it clean."

  • Donnie Howard - Crisfield, Md.

    Donnie Howard is doing something right, recognized as an outstanding grower three times in the past four years. He raises around 66,000 chickens at a time on his three-house farm near Crisfield, Md., sending them to the Tyson plant in Temperanceville, Va. for processing. As a grower since 1992, when he bought what was then a single-house chicken farm, he's one of the most experienced growers working on Delmarva today.

    "It's provided a steady income and it suits my daily routine, not doing the same thing every moment of every day," Howard said when DPI visited his farm in August. "It can be hectic and things can sometimes not go as planned, but it suits me." A willingness to tackle problems quickly, Howard said, is a key ingredient in any chicken grower's recipe for success: "I try to be prepared for what might happen, particularly with mechanical issues, and deal with them when you find them – not tomorrow. Deal with it today and get it done today."

    In this unusual year, Howard said he struggled with supply chain disruptions in obtaining needed equipment, but otherwise he felt lucky to avoid major pandemic problems. "We're fortunate in some ways. We haven't been laid off; I'm still producing birds and getting a check," Howard said. "I certainly haven't been affected the way I see people on television have. We've kept going."

    What advice would he give to a new grower? "Don't listen to everything you hear on the street. Run your farm and don't worry so much about what your neighbor's doing. Take care of your job – make sure your job's done first. Deal with what you have."

  • John Kelley (left) and Patrick Kelley (center), with co-farm manager Isaac Enriquez - Pocomoke City, Md.

    The father-and-son team of John and Patrick Kelley operate an 11-house chicken farm near Pocomoke City, raising flocks of about 393,000 birds for Mountaire Farms. Raising chickens is a family tradition for the Kelleys; John's father and brother bought the farm with him in the 1970s, and today, Patrick takes the lead in day-to-day farm operations. They also credit a co-farm manager, Isaac Enriquez, with a key role in making the farm succeed.

    "I enjoy competing against other growers," Patrick Kelley says of the work that drew him back to the farm after leaving to earn a non-ag degree in college. "I enjoy analyzing what works and what doesn't work to try and constantly improve on what we do."

    In years past, Patrick Kelley said, he kept details of how their farm operations close to his vest, not volunteering much to other growers or soliciting their advice. But in the 11 years he's been a grower, Patrick Kelley said, he's grown more and more open to collaborative input.

    "I realized that the more you talk to people, the knowledgeable you can get if you're willing to listen," he said. "I do like a team effort, with others and with employees, letting them have a voice. They can see things that sometimes we can't – and they like that, too."

  • Vickie Lambden - Bridgeville, Del.

    Vickie Lambden started growing chickens 24 years ago, before computerized controllers were routine and by-hand finetuning of chicken house fans was required to keep birds comfortable. It hasn't been easy work, but it suited her better than the stints in office jobs she had before then. "I really didn't care for the inside," Lambden, a Perdue Farms grower, said with a grin. "Raising chickens, I could be home more with my family, and you don't have to be cooped up all the time in the office." She is responsible for one house on a three-house farm, and her brother is in charge of the other two; cooperation between them makes managing the farm easier.

    "I've learned a lot from my brother," Lambden said. "He was in it before I was. Just following in his footsteps as far as watching the birds, how they react to temperature, to ammonia control." She appreciates modern tools like controllers for the time they save, but still relies on gut instincts developed from nearly a quarter-century with chickens in her care.

    "I really go on what I feel the birds need to keep them comfortable. I like to think I have a good sense for that," Lambden said. "Sometimes they can act a little weird and you have to figure that out."

    The questions she finds herself answering from non-farmers, Lambden says, are all about the scale of today's chicken farming, which outsiders often find larger than expected. "Some people might think it's too big. 30,000 birds in a house, they just don't understand how you can do that," she explained. "But as many people as you hear say, 'Oh, I eat chicken all the time' – there's always going to be a demand for our chicken."

  • Jim Marvel - Ellendale, Del.

    A longtime employee of Seaford's former DuPont plant, Jim Marvel had always wanted to grow chickens, but it wasn't until he and his wife bought the Ellendale-area farm property that the dream could become reality.

    With his first flock raised in 2018, Marvel is a fairly new grower, but as an Outstanding Grower this year he's clearly warmed to the job quickly. "I was so nervous. Really, really nervous," he said, recalling his first flock of chicks arriving from the Allen Harim hatchery. "I had a good service tech who worked with me and made me more comfortable."

    Marvel's eight-year-old daughter helps him set up for new flocks, and he appreciates – as he knew he would – the time this work lets him spend with his family. He inspects the chicken houses three to five times a day, making the first walk across the back yard to the birds by 6:30 a.m. and a final check around 9:30 at night. "There's more to it than I think people realize. More work and more thought," Marvel said. "I take a bucket and sit there and just watch them and listen to them. It tells you a lot. And even when you're not in the houses, you're thinking about them."

  • Far & Val Nasir - Pocomoke City, Md.

    Far and Val Nasir raise chickens for Perdue Farms, but they met working in a different part of the food supply chain: at a Connecticut supermarket. After nearly a decade in supermarket management and operation, they tired of the long hours away from that career entailed and decided to move to Maryland's Eastern Shore. The farm a short distance down a lane from their home has 6 chicken houses, and they raise nearly 1 million birds a year. Far Nasir also serves on DCA's Board of Directors and is the board's second vice president for 2020.

    "It makes us really proud that each chicken we're growing could feed one family for one day," Far Nasir said. "That's almost a million dinners we're getting ready every single year. To be able to do that," to be a source of good, quality food that's relatively inexpensive, that makes us really happy."

    As relatively new growers – they have grown chickens since 2013 – the Nasirs were grateful for guidance and advice their received from experienced growers, and are settling into a role mentoring other growers now. "It's really other farmers who have helped me grow to be a better farmer," Far Nasir said. "Now, guiding growers to the right thing is not going to hurt me. You help other people and it makes you a better farmer and a better person."

    Both Far and Val said they greatly appreciate the peace of mind that comes with a career that keeps them at home, or near home, most of the time. "I really enjoy, honestly, the quiet atmosphere of it after being in retail," Val Nasir said. "We keep up the farm's appearance: The grass is cut, the weeds are cut, and it looks nice. We try to be very neighborly so that it's an asset to the neighborhood."

  • Joel and Kayla Peterman - Milford, Del.

    Joel Peterman operates a fleet of school buses, helping transport students in three central Delaware school districts. Kayla Peterman is a hospital nurse. And on top of it all, they raise chickens – 147,800 birds at a time across seven chicken houses for Mountaire Farms.

    "So, long days," Joel Peterman acknowledges. "You always know you're probably not going to get to bed before 11 or 12 once you get done doing all your nightly checks. But the nice thing about chickens is you make your own schedule; you're somewhat flexible."

    Even though their farm east of Route 1 is off the beaten path, maintaining a good appearance is important to the Petermans. They have invested in two-row vegetative environmental buffers, using DPI's buffers coordinator for assistance with sourcing and planting the trees. Weeds are hard to spot, and the farm lanes are debris-free. "I am a stickler for things looking tip-top," Joel Peterman said. "I think that says something about a person, and their performance. You kind of know what kind of farm it is when you pull up to it – not always, but most times."

    Kayla Peterman says her chicken-grower career sometimes comes up in chats with coworkers at the hospital, and she takes opportunities to demystify how chickens are raised. "It's not like we walk in there and just see the chickens as a source of income. I look at them as something we're raising to be healthy. We want them to have the best quality of life when they're here," she said. "I'm proud of our farm. I would point at our whole thing and say, this is something amazing that we're doing."

  • Blair and Julie Shockley - Laurel, Del.

    Blair Shockley is one of those growers who seems born to do the work. He first raised chickens in 2002 in houses he rented from his grandfather, then stepped into work for Perdue Farms in 2005 in research and growout roles. He joined Northeast Agri as a sales representative in 2014, and a year later, invested in two newly built chicken houses on that same land he'd raised chickens on a dozen years before. "I built these houses how I would build them for anybody who asked my opinion," Shockley said. "To tear down houses my grandfather bought and paid for, and then we started our own journey – it's a sentimental thing."

    Blair and his wife, Julie, built the houses to supplement the family income while allowing her to spend more time at home raising their children. Like many chicken growers, home and farm are very close – across a country lane, in their case. Blair's father also helps care for the farm's flocks, 78,800 birds at a time.

    "For me, it's the challenge. I like the competitiveness," Blair Shockley said about what drew him back to raising chickens. "Every flock, when it comes in, you never know what birds you're going to be given. There's good chicks and bad chicks, but it's what we can make out of the chicken at the end."

    He attributes success he's had as a grower to time invested in the task. "The chickens are living below your sensors," Shockley said. "It takes going in, multiple trips, multiple times a day, to actually see and get it right, to make sure the chickens have what they need. It's time – it's all time."

  • Susan Steen - Laurel, Del.

    Susan Steen is a second-generation farmer, watching her sons learn the business and knowing her grandchildren – the fourth generation – may follow in their footsteps one day. Their family-owned farms grow field crops, but Steen's main role is to manage their two chicken houses. She grows flocks of 38,000 large birds at a time for Amick Farms, turning the birds over for processing after 9 weeks.

    "I worked off the farm but came home 10 years later," Steen said; she happily traded a clerical job in Georgetown's courthouse for farmwork, and since 1990 she has raised chickens full time. "It's in my blood, since my father had chickens. I can't believe I'm doing it some days, but I wouldn't change it. I'd take chickens any day over the office. I just don't like being inside; I'm an outdoors person."

    Like all chicken growers, Steen knows long hours come with the job. Her first chick on the houses comes around 6 a.m., and dinner is rarely served before 9 p.m. in the growing season, when both chickens and crops demand the family's attention. Her spirits took a blow in 2019, when her father – her role model as a farmer – died.

    "It's been a rough year all around for me, and so it was an honor for me to get that phone call about being an outstanding grower," Steen said. "I may not always finish first, but I try to be consistent. I can pass it on to my kids; they understand the whole operation. I feel they've learned a lot, from my husband and my dad."


About Delmarva Chicken Association
Delmarva Chicken Association, founded in 1948, is the Delmarva chicken industry's voice as the premier membership association focusing on advocacy, education and member relations. DCA's vision is to be the most-respected chicken organization in the United States. For more information about the Delmarva Chicken Association, visit www.dcachicken.com or call 302-856-9037.