Poultry operation a saving grace for mother, son in face of family’s loss
HENDERSON, Md. — For Faith Elliott Rossing, the spaces inside the new poultry houses she works with her 29-year-old son have taken on the aura of a sanctuary.
The family farm’s flock of 108,000 organically-raised chickens was supposed to be a job for three: Faith, her son Caleb, and Pete, her husband of more than three decades.
That changed a year ago when Pete was diagnosed with a brain tumor just one month after the fledgling farm operation received its first flock.
Pete Rossing died seven months later on Oct. 4, 2017. He was 62 years old.
It was an abrupt and tragic change for Faith and Caleb, but in the year since Pete’s death, they said, poultry farming has been a saving grace that unexpectedly made them closer.
“Those walls are plastered with prayers,” said Faith, 60, of the poultry houses behind her home in northern Caroline County. “It got me up, it got me out. It’s truly my place to pray.”
The three-house poultry operation was supposed to be a way back home for Pete, a successful commercial painter who’d grown tired of scaling structures such as grain tanks and bridges throughout the region, working mostly alone.
They owned more than 70 acres, part of a larger farm with generations of history in Faith’s family. Pete was born and raised in Baltimore, but was an avid waterfowl hunter and world champion goose caller who eventually settled on the Eastern Shore, married Faith in 1986 and had two children: Caleb and a daughter, Ashley Winterstein, who lives in nearby Sudlersville.
He was involved in 4-H, and Caleb is a commercial cattle fitter who works across North America. Poultry seemed like a feasible business.
“We were ready for Pete to come down off the steel,” Faith said. “It was hard on him.”
Pete and Caleb were to handle the day-to-day physical work while Faith, recently retired from a career with the economic development department in Queen Anne’s County, worked the books, including the paperwork-heavy permitting process to get the operation started.
Her brother had previously transitioned the farm into organic, which made it easier for the family to sign with Coleman Organic, a division of Perdue. The houses were quickly built, and the first flock was delivered in March 2017.
But Faith and Caleb were already noticing that something seemed off with Pete.
He was speaking less, struggled to remember things and was frequently tired, all of which seemed out of character for a man known for energy and optimism.
“He just wasn’t himself,” Faith said.
She figured her husband was stressed. Their poultry operation was a tremendous financial investment, and while they were comfortable as a farm family, they’d never raised birds.
After Pete’s condition failed to improve over two months, they took him to Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis where he was quickly diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive and devastating brain tumor that kills most patients within 15 months of their diagnosis, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Surgery followed the next day, a craniotomy. Then 30 days of radiation, followed by chemotherapy.
While Pete was sick, Faith said she often walked the chicken houses, reciting various Christian mantras such as, “Just trust and obey.” The family relied deeply on their religious faith. Before he went into surgery, Pete’s last two words were, “Use me,” a request to God.
It was a difficult six months, said Pastor Gary Priddy, who, at the time, was leading St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ingleside where the family attended services.
“It went from, ‘This is going to be a great thing for our family,’ to, ‘Our family is getting dealt a pretty serious blow here,’” he said.
On the day Pete died, it was his and Faith’s 31st wedding anniversary. She doesn’t consider it a coincidence.
“I think there is something special about special days,” she said.
The following day, Faith woke up and told Caleb she would begin caring for the birds. He was already refocused on the work.
“You get up and go to work. You got bills to pay, you got stuff to do, you can’t just stop,” he said.
Each morning, Faith and Caleb walked the birds, checking feed lines, monitoring temperatures and recording mortalities.
“I have to have a reason to get up, and I have to have a reason to go outside,” she said.
It took time to gel as business partners, Faith said.
“I don’t deal well with emotion,” said Caleb as his mother laughed. “I just work. If you see it done twice, and you still mess it up, get out of the way; I’m going to do it. That was dad’s way. That’s the way I’m trying to be.”
There were occasional sources of friction. Caleb demanded that his mother remove the dead from the houses each day. She had to get used to culling. And she had to stop anxiously reacting to the operation’s computer data feed and calling Caleb with concerns.
“That [computer] has no eyes, has no sense of feel, has no nose, has no ears,” Caleb said. “You got to go in there and feel it.”
Caleb was also used to working with his father. They understood each other and would often yell, argue and then laugh about it.
“That didn’t necessarily happen with me,” Faith said, laughing. “He’d laugh and I’d cry.”
But the relationship evolved, she said. Caleb takes the lead on issues such as feed and the farm’s relationship with Perdue. Faith continues to handle the administrative side, performing audits, overseeing nutrient management paperwork and other duties.
In the houses, they said, they remember Pete. He met Faith on a blind date and asked her to marry him two weeks later. He could yell, laugh, drink a beer and pray, all in five minutes. He loved God. He carved miniature hunting decoys. He was enormously well-liked. Several weeks after his death, more than 650 people attended a celebration of his life.
“He was confident,” Faith said. “Not fearful of the future. Always positive. I think one of his favorite lines was, ‘It’ll be OK. Whatever happens, it will be OK.’”
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