First things first: I’m going to be on “Maryland Morning” with Sheilah Kast on WYPR radio (88.1 FM) shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
I’ll be talking about poop. More specifically, chicken poop.
I wrote an in-depth story about a lawsuit over chicken poop and the trial starts Tuesday morning. (For once, it’s a poop story that’s not about human poop.)
The short version of the lawsuit is this: Environmentalists claim a family’s poultry farm is polluting waterways and that the chicken company the family raises chickens for — Perdue Farms — is responsible for the pollution, too.
The farm in question is all the way at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed, almost to Ocean City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It is way out of my newspaper’s normal territory.
I’d hardly written anything about the case as it dragged on for a few years. But when the settlement conferences failed, the judge denied motions for summary judgement and a trial was scheduled, I saw an opportunity for a story.
And since I hadn’t written blow-by-blow accounts of developments in the case, I was able to come at it with fresh eyes, just as my readers would.
I started by spending three days sitting in the newsroom with my eyes glued to Pacer, the federal court system’s online document system. I read page after page after page of filings and rebuttals and memos.
And I actually understood most of it. OK, I’ll admit to getting a little lost in the nuances of case law cited in the briefs. But the legal arguments were clear and well-explained by all sides.
I also read anything I could find that was written on the case — including both the mainstream media (The Daily Times, The Baltimore Sun) and the agricultural trade press and farm blogs. I also read plenty of material posted on websites of groups involved (Assateague Coastal Trust, University of Maryland’s law school, Save Farm Families).
In addition to phone interviews, I took two trips to the Delmarva Peninsula to drive by the Hudson Farm myself (I was not allowed to actually visit) and to do interviews in person. I shot videos and photos while I was there. I ended up making stops in Salisbury, Berlin, Seaford and Georgetown, for those who know the area.
The result of all that was a way over-reported story! I used perhaps 10 percent of the material I gathered in the final story.
For example, I spent more than an hour touring a Perdue-owned plant that takes chicken litter and converts it to hard little beads of fertilizer that’s used in commercial products such as Holly-tone. It was fascinating, but ended up as just a passing mention in the final story.
Having an overabundance of reporting material is actually a good thing, because it meant I had a thorough understanding of the case and I could hopefully write about it without making mistakes. That’s often how mistakes happen — we reporters have to work so fast that sometimes we don’t have the time to get a full understanding of our subject matter.
It was a fun challenge to come into a reporting project knowing only the basic outlines and learning enough to write an interesting and accurate story for my readers. And boy did it feel good to finish off the story and have my editors approve it just before I headed out on vacation for a week! But now I’m back and excited to cover some of the chicken poop trial.
UPDATE: If, like me, you’re really, really into chicken poop, then you may want to check out a preview of the case that The Baltimore Sun just posted online. I imagine it will be on their front page on Tuesday. Their reporter, Tim Wheeler, has done much more extensive reporting on this case throughout and has a nice summary here.