November 14, 2003



Shut Down of Tyson's Berlin Poultry Plant

After more than 30 years of hatching and processing poultry for three successive companies, the expansive plant in Berlin run by Tyson Foods closed Wednesday, November 12.


Tyson began laying off workers soon after it announced in April that it would close the complex, which had been Worcester County's largest private employer. A total of 650 people lost their jobs, with an additional 350 of them let go on Wednesday, said company spokesman Ed Nicholson.


The nonprofit Lower Shore Workforce Alliance, based in nearby Snow Hill, has trained workers and helped them find new jobs, aided by a $700,000 federal grant, said Executive Director B.J. Corbin.


Other poultry plants on the lower Eastern Shore have also offered jobs to some of the laid-off workers, said Corbin, who didn't have numbers on how many found work.


Tyson Foods Inc., the largest meat producer in the world, offered workers jobs at the company's three plants in Virginia. The Arkansas-based company said it closed the Berlin plant, near Ocean City, to streamline operations. The plant was one of Tyson's least profitable, along with two plants already closed in Florida and Oklahoma, the company said.


The closing also left 155 chicken growers to find contracts with other poultry companies.


Worcester County Commissioner Virgil Shockley is one of those growers. He now sells his chickens to Allen Family Foods of Delaware, but had to pay about $25,000 to renovate each of his chicken houses so he could grow the larger birds his new contract calls for.


None of the other poultry companies on the Shore, including Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc., and Mountaire Farms of Selbyville, Del., can use the smaller birds processed by Tyson.


Shockley, who also is a member of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s advisory Poultry Issues Action Team, estimated that about 30 growers who were close to retirement age closed down and about 100 found new contracts.


About 25 growers have yet to come up with the money to retrofit their chicken houses, he said. "I don't know exactly where all this is going to shake out," Shockley said. "At some point in the near future, they're going to have to get a loan to convert [their chicken houses] or close the farm."


Two families in Berlin and Ocean City are in negotiations to buy the plant and convert it to a mixed-use business facility, Shockley said.


The Tyson plant, formerly run by Hudson Foods and a company called Chesapeake, rolled out about 1 million processed chickens a week. The birds were hatched at the complex, driven to growers and packaged weeks later.

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