Last week Pauline Henderson was shocked when she picked up a shipment of what was supposed to be 800 live chicks from her post office in New Sharon.

Henderson, who owns and operates Pine Tree Poultry, a family farm and chicken meat processing facility that specializes in chicken pot pies, said all 800 chicks sent from a hatchery in Pennsylvania were dead.

“We’ve never had a problem like this before,” said Henderson, who has been running her farm for five years and regularly receives shipments of live birds.

“Usually they arrive every three weeks like clockwork,” she said Wednesday. “And out of 100 birds you may have one or two that die in shipping.”

Pauline Henderson, owner of Pine Tree Poultry, poses for portrait at her family farm and chicken meat processing facility in New Sharon on Wednesday. Last Thursday Henderson went to the post office to pick up her order of 800 live chicks and all of them were dead. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She said the dead birds she received last week shipped in the normal amount of time but apparently were mishandled.

She said thousands of birds that moved through the Postal Service’s processing center in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, all met the same fate, affecting several farms in Maine and New Hampshire.

The U.S. Postal Service’s media contact for the Eastern U.S. did not return a message Wednesday.

What was once a reliable and safe method of transporting chicks has apparently been undermined by widespread overhauls of operations at the U.S. Postal Service, including cutbacks in sorting equipment, ending extra trips by carriers and an edict to end all overtime by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Some Democrats accuse DeJoy of intentionally raising concerns about the timely delivery of absentee ballots in the November election, sowing concern and confusion among voters as President Trump repeatedly asserts – without evidence – that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District, is raising the issue of the dead chicks and the losses Maine farms are facing in a letter to DeJoy and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Pingree’s office has received dozens of complaints from farmers and other Mainers just trying to raise a small flock of chickens in the backyard.

“It’s one more of the consequences of this disorganization, this sort of chaos they’ve created at the post office and nobody thought through when they were thinking of slowing down the mail,” Pingree said.

“And can you imagine, you have young kids and they are getting all excited about having a backyard flock and you go to the post office and that’s what you find?”

Baby chicks that were safely delivered to Pine Tree Poultry earlier in the day on Wednesday. The chicks were replacements for last Thursday’s shipment in which all 800 chicks were dead. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pingree said she included Perdue on the letter because she’s not sure he would even be aware of how the changes in the postal service are affecting small poultry farms in the U.S. Pingree said the USDA also is responsible for enforcing farm regulations that protect against animal cruelty.

“This is a system that’s always worked before and it’s worked very well until these changes started being made,” Pingree said.

Concerns over delayed absentee ballots in November and ongoing complaints from consumers about late and mishandled mail prompted DeJoy Tuesday to say he would delay the changes in the postal service until after the election.

But those promises have not allayed the concerns of attorneys general from about a dozen states, including Maine, who filed multiple federal lawsuits Tuesday in an attempt to force Trump and DeJoy to fund the service adequately so it can handle what is expected to be a deluge of absentee ballots sent by mail this fall.

Trump also has steadily criticized voting by mail and threatened to withhold funding for the postal service to derail what he calls “universal mail-in voting,” which the president has claimed, without evidence, would lead to widespread voter fraud.

DeJoy is expected to testify before Congress this week on the changes he had implemented that have been blamed for delays and the mishandling of mail. Democrats in Congress have backed legislation that would boost postal service funding by as much as $25 billion in order to ensure voting by mail will be safe and secure, but those efforts have been rejected by the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

The postal service is the only entity that ships live chicks and other small animals and has done so since 1918, according to the service’s website. For farmers in Maine it has been an affordable method for receiving live chicks from hatcheries in other parts of the country. The state has no hatcheries of its own. A newly hatched chick can live for up to two days without food or water, drawing its nutrition from the yolk of the egg it was hatched in, according to poultry experts with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Henderson said an earlier shipment of chicks she received had 150 dead chicks out of 800. These problems prompted her and her husband to stop ordering chicks through the mail and instead send one of their four full-time employees to pick the birds up by car – at a cost of about $700 for the round trip to South Fork, Pennsylvania.

The practice was cost-prohibitive, Henderson said, because of the travel expenses as well as the two days of lost labor.

The worker risked exposure to COVID-19 by traveling in parts of the country with higher infection rates than Maine before returning to New Sharon, where they could be exposing their families or other co-workers to the virus, Henderson said. So they decided to go back to using the mail. That’s when they received the 800 dead chicks.

At least 4,800 dead chicks have been received by Maine farms in recent weeks, Pingree said. In her letter to DeJoy and Perdue, Pingree said the financial impact on farms like Henderson’s is staggering.

“Mortality losses from delays and mishandling are not only hugely problematic from an animal welfare perspective, but have also taken an emotional toll on the recipients, many of whom are families building a backyard flock or children raising birds for 4-H or Future Farmers of America (FFA) projects,” Pingree wrote. “For these families, receiving chicks in the mail is a longstanding tradition, and with family farms in America already struggling to keep younger generations engaged and interested in agriculture, these negative experiences could significantly undermine those efforts.”

Henderson said the hatchery in Pennsylvania that ships the birds will refund to farms the cost of the chicks, but they can’t make up the lost time. Efforts to contact the hatchery were not successful Wednesday.

Henderson said each bird can be worth as much as $32, depending on whether it’s sold whole or processed into parts or pies, she said.

“This is our livelihood, this isn’t a hobby farm,” Henderson said. “We are trying to save our livelihood.” The farm employs four full-time workers, two part-time workers and has a crew that comes to help process the birds every few weeks. The farm is one of the largest producers of poultry meat in Maine, she said.

Pingree said farmers deserve some answers from DeJoy and want to know how recent changes he instituted to cut postal service costs, like eliminating overtime and other changes to the way mail is processed, is affecting the delivery of live chicks.

“Rural Americans, including agricultural producers, disproportionately rely on USPS for their livelihoods, and it is essential that they receive reliable service,” Pingree said.

 

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