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'I love the chicken life': New crop of poultry farmers growing on the Shore

POCOMOKE CITY — There is a growing community of Pakistani chicken farmers on the Eastern Shore south of Salisbury. They came for cheap land and an opportunity to grow chickens in state of the art chicken houses. You can buy four acres for about $45,000.

Far Nasir came to North America from Pakistan as a teenager, went to college and got a degree in computer science. Then he took a job with his dad running a supermarket in Connecticut, but the 12-hour days were brutal.

He has a family and wants to be present in their lives. So he and his American-born wife, Valeria, decided that raising chickens made sense on a multiple levels. After looking at spots in Arkansas and Georgia, they landed on the Eastern Shore in Worcester County.

They are making a good living with much better hours — and they are their own bosses.

They had never farmed anything before. He says he is friends with his kids now because he generally works from 4 a.m. to 11 am. He is also vice president of the Delmarva Chicken Association — a chicken farm advocacy group.

The group is so diverse in their membership that they publish their manuals in English, Vietnamese, Korean and Urdu. Nasir will be president next year and has been a chicken farmer for nine years.

“If I have a lot to say, I better be a part of something that has some say. Zoom has been good because I can be anywhere I want to be from right here,” he said. This has helped his participation with DCA. We always joke that this is a part time job with full time hours. My wife loves doing chickens. It has been good for us. I love the chicken life. Before we had two stores and worked 70 to 90 hours a week.”

“I am always home and that is what I love about this. I get to spend more time with my kids. It brings us closer. Farming has been a blessing for us. That is the thing with Pakistani people — everything is family.”

Far is optimistic about life, the American Dream and the future.

“That is how our American Dream started. You come here with something, not enough, when you come here. And then you build something. So I think a lot of immigrants still have that dream. I want my kids to go visit other cultures so they don’t have that closed mindedness. That’s the best education you could get is visit other cultures. I’ve been to three continents. I plan on visiting all seven eventually.”

They live in a blended family and have tried to instill a sense of both cultures in them. Like reading the Quran in English. But really they just have American kids. He has to bribe them with Chick-fil-A to go to the mosque with him. They broke their fast at the end of Ramadan at sunset with 300 people.

“It is wonderful. Four or five people will feed 300 people. The mosque provides the tent. It is giving back and it is a meet up of all the families,” he said.

In addition to family and friends, the event is about the food after the month-long annual fast.

“It is really good to eat after fasting. You are like, ‘Ah food!’” said Valeria Nasir who is originally from Connecticut. They met in one of his family’s supermarkets up north.

Far Nasir tried fasting and working at the same time, but he found he didn’t have enough energy. He felt responsible for his chicken’s lives.

“You know what? God would forgive me. I don’t know if the chickens would,” he said laughing. “My chores include checking on the mortality rate, making sure the water lines are good and the feed lines. Just walk through make sure there are no issues and pick up the dead. We usually do one chicken per square foot. There are approximately 26,000 chickens per house.”

Far also sees purpose in his farming.

“I say that is 26,000 dinners that I am giving to families at a good cost. You could feed people cheaper on chicken than you could on broccoli. I feel like I am helping to feed people,” he said.

They have six houses that he and Valeria can manage it all on their own. That is 156,000 chickens. That is 312,000 chicken breasts.

The level of automation in a modern chicken house is impressive. When temperatures go down the birds are automatically given more protein to consume. There are augers that parcel out the food from the big bins. There are sensors to keep track of how much feed is going out. He said that six houses are a minimum to make economic sense for a family to run them. He would welcome the opportunity to have more houses.

“If we went organic we could make a lot more money. The only thing we don’t have is organic feed. When the chickens are sick we don’t give them anything unnatural. Just aspirin in the water supply,” he said.

“We have gotten to a point where we can raise a chicken in seven weeks. It used to take 20. That is not antibiotics or steroids. It is genetic selection. We joke that they live better than we do, because when it is cold outside, they are kept warm. We take pride in this. Not just myself but my family too. We are in a profession that has meaning to us and our community,” Far said.

Far is in a process of creating buffer zones, which are plants lined up in a wall to mitigate the smell of the chicken houses. His first round of trees all died from bag worms. Now he is thinking of planting daisies which will come up again and again.

“Part of being a poultry farmer is being a good neighbor. 20 years ago nobody knew, nobody cared about buffer zones. Now that we know and care, we will do something about it,” he said.

The other aspect of the poultry business that has advanced is what to do with all the waste.

“We actually have a manure broker that comes in and more times than less, takes it out of state. Most of it goes to Pennsylvania for mushroom farming. There is technology out there that turns it into Biodiesel. Right now there is no one one on the shore dealing with the manure,” he said.

Far and Valeria clean up the manure on their own. He likes being personally responsible and not having to pay someone else for their mistakes. To transform the manure into fertilizer or fuel requires a lot of start up money that he says he does not have. When there is a system in place he will gladly use it.

“The USDA and Perdue get together, beyond me, and decide how much food we need per chicken. This is how much water supply we need per chicken. Perdue gives me money per square foot. The actual cost is way more, but it is still a great help,” he said. “A lot of Pakistani people went with Perdue so we did too. It just made sense.”

He is very interested in the economics of chicken farming and pricing.

“We have developed this technology to feed people quicker and with a shorter time period. And for less cost. From the 1940s it took us 70 years to get to this place. Speak with your money. When you are standing in front of a supermarket aisle and you see environmentally responsible chicken that is $3 a pound. And then you see chicken for 79 cents a pound. That is when you should speak. And once we do this, farmers like me will do whatever we can to adjust. The problem is people like to say these things but like to grab those things,” he said.

Again, Far thinks about the community — and consumers.

“A family making $26,000 a year, how are you going to convince them to instead of spending 99 cents to buy at $4? It has got to be 99 cents until we get a more affordable source of protein. Our chicken is not for someone having a seven course meal. It is really for people who won’t eat. We are doing good work,” he said.

They formulate the food for the different seasonal needs of the birds and there is genetic selection in the breeding process. That is why the birds get so big.

Although he is a politically active farmer who has real life challenges, he originally came to the west when he was just 16.

Far came from the city of Lahore, a mega city of 12.6 million people. He went to college in Toronto at Seneca College studying computer science.

There is one Pakistani restaurant, Punjab, in Salisbury and they make a good flat bread called nan. Fan loves garlic nan. The family will also go to the mosque in Salisbury, get take out Pakistani food from Punjab and visit his father who is retired there.

He knows of 10 or 12 full functioning chicken farms in the Salisbury area that are also run by Pakistani families.

The Pakistani community has been good to him as well.

“I could literally pick up the phone and call five people and they can call me,” he said. He also said that the local farming community is tight knit too.

Far, Valeria and their family also have to deal with the issue of race on the Shore — though they approach it with perspective.

“Yes, I have faced racism. But let’s be honest, 90% plus of the people are good. You can feel racism. You know when it is there. They don’t say the wrong things, but you feel it,” Far said. “You cannot be a successful business person in this country unless you have a thick skin. You have to have a thick skin being a minority. Sometimes I am mistaken for Latino. It is usually the Latin people that do that. I’m like, ‘No hablo.’ I speak English, Urdu and a local dialect- Punjabi.”

He has experienced racism in Pakistan too because his wife is white. He says they get it from both sides.

Punjab has a rich tradition of poetry. With Pakistani poetry he says to his kids, ‘don’t just read, understand it.’ Understanding will give you a bigger view. He has his kids reading the Quran in English.

He believes in systems for his family and his farm as a former computer science major.

“System is the basis of everything. If everything is structured it is good. Even the sun coming up and going down is a system,” he said.

Valeria and Far have figured out the systems well. Both agriculturally and culturally their family is thriving. Valeria, has a Facebook diary of working on a poultry farm. It is called Follow Val’s Flock. The Facebook page has a joyful tone in working hard and doing a good job. She can even fix a tractor. As a birthday present three years ago he got her a brand new Volvo SUV.

“I told her to consider this a birthday present for the next few years,” he said.

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Prizes for shots: Delaware launches COVID vaccine lottery

WILMINGTON — Delaware has joined the cast of states offering lottery prizes and other incentives to those who get COVID-19 vaccines.

Gov. John Carney announced the launch of DE Wins! — the state’s vaccination incentive program.

The state is offering Delaware lottery prizes, a full college scholarship to a public university and tickets to sporting events and music festivals. Delaware joins Maryland and a number of other states offering lottery prizes and other potential perks for getting a coronavirus vaccine shot.

Delaware residents age 12 and older who are vaccinated from May 25 to June 29 and any Delawareans ages 12 to 17 vaccinated to date will be entered to win $5,000 in cash and other prizes from the state lottery.

Those include tickets to the Firefly Music Festival, the Delmarva Shorebirds and Wilmington Blue Rocks minor league baseball teams. The state is looking for additional businesses and venues to offer vaccination prizes.

The Delaware Lottery will conduct the twice-weekly vaccine lottery drawings on Mondays and Fridays from May 31 through June 30.

There will also be a $302,000 grand prize drawing for those who have received COVID vaccines on June 30.

Vaccine lotteries and other incentives are being implemented by a number of U.S. states and some cities to help bolster vaccination rates and overcome hesitancies and slowing demand for shots.

“Our goal is to reach 70 percent of vaccinated adults in Delaware in the coming weeks, and to continue vaccinating as many Delawareans as possible against COVID-19,” Carney said. “This incentive and public education campaign will help get us there. The science is clear. These vaccines are extremely safe and protective against COVID-19 infection and serious illness.”

Approximately 65% of Delawareans have received at least one COVID vaccine shot.

Carney has lifted the state’s mask mandates and other COVID restrictions mirroring actions taken in Maryland and some other states. The lifted mask mandate applies to both the vaccinated and unvaccinated though Carney is still encouraging those who have not received shots to continue to wear face covering.

“If you aren’t vaccinated, you should still wear a mask to protect the immunocompromised and prevent new infections,” Carney said. “Delawareans who are fully vaccinated have significant protection against this virus and can feel comfortable getting back to the things they loved to do before this pandemic.”

Memorial Day edition — coming Friday

Check out our special Memorial Day issue in The Star Democrat on Friday, May 28, with coverage of local holiday events and profiles of those who have served our country.

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University of Maryland is one step closer to acquiring Aspen Institute's Wye River campus

EASTON — The Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously approved the University System of Maryland’s acquisition of a parcel of valuable agricultural land on the Wye River from the Aspen Institute May 19 to complete another step in the purchasing process.

Now that the Board of Public Works has approved the acquisition, the University System of Maryland is one step closer to purchasing the 234-acre parcel for a total of $936,000, or $4,000 per acre, from the Aspen Institute. The newly acquired land will primarily serve the University of Maryland, College Park’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Located in Queen Anne’s County close to the university’s Wye Research and Education Center, the property is currently leased to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources from the nonprofit Aspen Institute. It’s bordered by the Wye East River on one side and Wye Narrows on the other.

The college’s current acreage is used for research on Maryland’s farms and the Chesapeake Bay, focusing on the connection between agriculture and the environment. It’s also home to the world-famous Wye Angus herd, a closed breeding population of excess research cattle, which are available for auction to the general public every year.

Purchasing the land is a long process, said Dr. Kate Everts, director of the Wye Research and Education Center. The purchase request had to be approved by the University System of Maryland and the Board of Public Works, and it may be several more months until the purchase is made and the conservation easement is transferred over.

“It is an amazing resource in researching advanced improved methods for conserving the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” Everts said. “So this really is an amazing and wonderful piece of property for really advancing our understanding of how we can protect and preserve the Chesapeake Bay.”

Additionally, the Aspen Institute is gifting 330 acres of its land to the university, part of which will be used for grazing for the Wye Angus herd. The rest will be used for other agricultural and environmental research projects to keep up with the university’s environmental stewardship.

Historically, the land was given to the Aspen Institute as a gift from Arthur and Nina Houghton in 1978. To ensure future land conservation, Nina placed a covenant on the land declaring that it has to be used for educational purposes and must be preserved as open space, according Everts.

The Aspen Institute has been in the process of selling the land since 2018 after deciding to consolidate its operations in its existing offices in Washington, D.C., and Aspen, Colorado, said Jonathan Purves, senior media relations manager for Aspen Institute.

Two former Aspen Institute conference centers — the Houghton House and the River House — are also located on the land to be purchased. They’re not part of the sale to the University of Maryland, Everts said.

The purchase of the land will continue to advance the Wye Research and Education Center’s educational, research and extension missions, Everts said. The impact will have a broader effect too, benefiting not just the University of Maryland but also the whole state.

“It’s going to allow us to expand our research and education extension programs, learn more about how to keep the Chesapeake Bay healthy and vibrant and help agriculture advance and be as environmentally forward looking as possible,” Everts said.

Natalie Jones is a reporter at The Star Democrat in Easton. You can reach her at njones@chespub.com and follow her on Twitter @_nataliemjones.

Singer Lauryn Hill performs at the Pyramid stage on the third day of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Somerset, England, Friday, June 28, 2019. (Photo by Grant Pollard/Invision/AP)