‘Tireless watchdog, advocate’ Chesnik praised
WILLARDS, Md. — In the 1980s, Michelle Chesnik was working in the banking industry. It was the height of the savings and loan crisis, and Chesnik was living near Baltimore and constantly traveling domestically and abroad, consolidating operations as thrift institutions shuttered across the country.
“I’d leave Baltimore, go out to the airport, get on the light rail, go to D.C., take the subway, get another subway and then walk six blocks, and I did that every day,” she said. “My days were 16-, 18-hour days a lot of times. … I just got tired of it. I was constantly on the road.”
She was married and had a young son at home, and she was exhausted.
So she got out.
Her family escaped to Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore and bought a chicken farm. That was about three decades ago.
Since then, Chesnik and her husband Paul have built a successful 135,000-bird operation, and Chesnik has established herself a key advocate for the region’s poultry industry in Annapolis where she’s often seen lobbying and testifying before legislators or working with groups such as the Maryland Agricultural Commission, which informs policy at the state department of agriculture.
The Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. honored Chesnik for that commitment, awarding her the Edward H. Ralph DPI Medal of Achievement at its annual Booster Banquet in Salisbury on April 18. The award is given each year to a non-elected person for outstanding service on behalf of Delmarva’s poultry industry.
It was an emotional moment for Chesnik, who, despite her history of advocacy on behalf of poultry farmers, wasn’t expecting recognition. When DPI Executive Director Bill Satterfield asked her to sit up front during the awards ceremony because there weren’t enough farmers, she didn’t think twice about it.
“I was shocked, surprised. I didn’t expect anything like that,” she said. “I just do what I do. I’m honored, I’m humbled. But I didn’t expect that.
In a statement, DPI said it gave Chesnik the award for being a “tireless watchdog and advocate for the chicken community.”
It cited her large network of contacts across the state and her positive influence on the state’s phosphorous management regulations. She also continues to speak out on animal antibiotics and air quality issues to both legislators and residents alike.
It’s something she said she wished more farmers would do.
She said she has fond memories from the early 1990s when Shore farmers packed the Maryland State House to protest “co-permitting,”
That would have tied poultry integrators closer to farmers, challenging their independence and making them more valuable targets for lawsuits, Chesnik said.
“Frank Perdue managed to rally so many growers that when we went up to Annapolis, the halls were covered with growers,” she said. “The amount of enthusiasm and support that you saw back then to get people to stand up and speak about their farm and agriculture is very different than today. You don’t have that many that are willing to go out and advocate or educate.”
Farmers, she said, should engage politicians and support, educate and donate to legislators and elected officials who fight for poultry farming interests.
The Chesniks, for instance, have been supporting Joe Schanno, a young Berlin native running for the District 38C state House seat serving Worcester and Wicomico counties.
“The attacks on ag are going to continue and increase,” she said. “I think what we all have to do is just to communicate. Communicate what we do. … As much transparency as you can give the consumer. Making sure the consumer understands how their food is raised. That we have the safest food supply in the world. I mean, really, we do.”
She also turned the family farm into a model for best management practices, establishing extensive grass and forest buffers with 29 different species. Her farm is also a certified agricultural conservation steward with the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts — something too few farms have joined, she said.
Chesnick, at 63, said she plans to continue pushing for the industry.
“I love farming still. I haven’t given up on farming. You get older, it gets harder. Takes longer,” she said. “I love what I do. I love going out there.”
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