AS HE TRUDGED through the mud of poultry grower Arthur Holley's Parsonsburg farm last week, Rep. Wayne T. Gil-chrest symbolically crossed into new territory. He and several other members of Congress had journeyed from Washington to take a closer look at something that until recently had gone largely unnoticed -- the demotion of the chicken farmer from ruler of his roost to land-owning serf.

In doing so, Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, and the others joined a small but growing movement that hopes to change the relationship between the roughly 30,000 U.S. chicken growers and the large corporations that process and market poultry.

Escorted by activists such as Episcopal priest Jim Lewis and his Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, the representatives also got lessons in the woes of poultry factory workers, chicken catchers and immigrant labor, and a hint of assembly line sanitary practices that are anything but finger-lickin' good.

The latter problems have been well documented, but the chicken farmer's plight is just beginning to get attention:

* Since a three-part series of articles in The Sun three weeks ago described the farmers' predicament in detail, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have asked Congress for more authority to help growers who have been wronged.

* Gilchrest's delegation pledged support.

* The formation of a cooperative of Eastern Shore growers as an alternative to large processing companies has moved closer to reality.

* And, state regulators who two years ago were targeting chicken farmers for their handling of manure are planning to shift some of the onus to the companies, holding them equally responsible for pollution.

In response, an industry that has historically been reluctant to talk much about its relationships with growers has indicated an openness to dialogue.

The Sun series told the stories of farmers who borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to build chicken houses. In exchange for guaranteed prices for the chickens they raise, they must give up virtually all control of their operations.

It is the poultry firms that have the egg-to-supermarket stranglehold on authority, and government regulators have little power to help the farmers who are crushed along the way. The five largest poultry companies hold half the industry's market share -- an increasingly concentrated environment that has narrowed options for farmers seeking a better deal.

This system, known as "vertical integration," has produced many winners -- consumers who paid little for a low-fat meat and poultry kings such as Frank Perdue and Don Tyson who got rich and gave to community causes. Few people noticed when farmers began sinking to the bottom.

About the only attention they got was unwanted, as when environmentalists blamed them for the runoff of chicken manure that was polluting the Chesapeake Bay. Many were unaware that the farmers do not even own the chickens they raise.

A day after the Sun series concluded, USDA officials charged with policing the poultry industry's relationships with its growers acknowledged to a congressional panel that they do not have the enforcement authority or manpower to do their job well.

Michael V. Dunn, USDA's undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs, asked Congress for authority to rein in errant poultry companies the same way they can get tough with the beef, lamb and hog industries.

Last week, Gilchrest, of Kennedyville, accompanied four House colleagues -- fellow Republican Amo Houghton of New York and Democrats John Lewis of Georgia, David E. Bonior of Michigan and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio -- to the Eastern Shore to hear the stories of the farmers and poultry workers. Members of the group later said they supported increasing USDA's authority over poultry and would determine what else they could do to help.

Other seedlings of new interest are sprouting. On Thursday the Chesapeake Bay Foundation secured the funding to start its own small poultry processing plant within about a year, hoping to supply it with chickens from a cooperative of about a dozen growers. The goal is to give the farmers, the plant workers and other members of the community an ownership stake in a production system that is fair and humane to all parties, and friendly to the environment.

In addition, poultry industry executives expressed a willingness last week to talk about the issues, meeting with the congressional visitors and inviting them to return to tour plants.

'Let's have dialogue'