The poultry industry helps drive the economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but poultry litter — chicken manure — has been blamed as one of the greatest contributors to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. So, large producers, farmers and state officials are working together to lessen the industry’s environmental impact while preserving the businesses.
“Currently, there is no financially viable way to treat poultry litter,” said Gary Felton, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Maryland, College Park.
However, he added, with Maryland taking the lead in addressing pollution and trying to craft a solution, the state “has the potential to make a big difference,” Felton said.
Many different factors have contributed to Chesapeake Bay pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, agriculture accounted for 33 percent to 41 percent of nutrient pollution in the bay in 2000. The nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorous — combine to create “dead zones,” areas without oxygen for the aquatic food chain.
According to EPA stats, agriculture is the greatest contributor to bay pollution. Urban and septic pollution, meaning runoff from roads and yards, accounts for 20 percent to 37 percent of excess nutrients in the bay. Wastewater treatment facilities are responsible for about 20 percent. Pollution from abandoned land, forests and the atmosphere are included in this breakdown, but are much smaller contributors.
These statistics do not single out chicken farms. The agriculture category also includes dairy farmers and turkey growers.
“But in terms of cash, poultry is the number one agricultural industry in Maryland, worth $689 million wholesale in 2009,” Felton said, citing state agricultural department figures.
The industry also represents many jobs on the Eastern Shore. The four major production companies have 15,000 employees, and there are another 1,700 chicken farmers with their own workers.
The EPA is requiring states and agencies to come up with guidelines to reduce pollution, especially in agricultural areas.
Maryland “is taking a multi-pronged approach, and poultry is one of the prongs,” said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
In 1999, Maryland began requiring farmers who utilized feeding pens that will eventually discharge waste into surface waters to apply for an animal feeding operation permit. Apperson said Maryland is the first bay state to require this general discharge permit to control nutrients from agricultural animal operations. Nearly 600 farmers have applied to register.
Maryland, like the other five states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, was required to submit a watershed implementation plan to the EPA last year. This plan would serve as the road map for Maryland to decrease the pollutants into the bay.
In December, the EPA accepted the first phase of Maryland’s plan. Phase two will be developed this year, with the third and final phase to be developed by 2020.
To try to combat the pollution caused by both chicken litter and chemical fertilizer runoff, commercial poultry producer Perdue started its AgriRecycle business 10 years ago. Located in Seaford, Del., it is the country’s first and largest commercial facility that turns poultry litter into pasteurized, organic fertilizer that is sold to major brands nationwide.
In the past 10 years, Perdue has spent $44 million to build, maintain and operate the facility, said Steve Schwalb, vice president of environmental sustainability for Perdue. He said it has prevented more than 1.5 billion pounds of poultry litter from entering the bay.
The Seaford facility is six miles from the Maryland border, and the state’s farmers contribute quite a lot of its raw materials.
“About 20 percent of the poultry growers on the Eastern Shore … participate in AgriRecycle,” Schwalb said. The program cleans out poultry houses for free and transports the litter to the facility. Farmers are left with enough litter to use as regulation-allotted fertilizer on their land.
AgriRecycle also ensures that farmers meet the nutrient management plan requirements from the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The plan includes soil and litter samples.
Perdue’s motivation for AgriRecycle was environmental, not profits, Schwalb said. The company is still working to put the facility in the black by expanding its markets and increasing efficiency.
“Over the years, we’ve heard a number of ideas for alternative programs for poultry litter in Delmarva but AgriRecycle is the only solution that’s become a reality. We have tangible results,” he said.
Tommy Landers, policy advocate at Environment Maryland, applauded Perdue AgriRecycle’s accomplishments. But with Maryland chicken farmers raising 300 million birds per year that produce 600 million pounds of litter, “at the end of the day Perdue needs to take more responsibility” for the manure overload, he said.
“Corporate agri-business is one of the biggest polluters and everyone needs to pay their fair share. Perdue needs [to implement] more manageable practices on the farm,” Landers said. The cost to implement cleanup practices on farmland, he added, “is shared by farmers and taxpayers.”
Perdue AgriRecycle may be the largest operation to cut down on chicken litter pollution, but it is not the only one.
The Maryland agriculture department has its own manure program, which transports poultry litter elsewhere in the state upon request.
“It’s a way to move litter out of the county,” said Jennifer Timmons, a poultry specialist with the University of Maryland, College Park who works out of an experimental station in Salisbury.
Felton said a number of technologies involving chicken litter are in the experimental stage. One is to use it as an alternative energy source in the form of biomass. Another is adding an ingredient to the feed for nutrient manipulation.
A third solution from the U.S. Department of Agriculture injects litter into the soil’s subsurface. It is currently being tested in Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest producers of chickens — “where they have a big problem – the black hole of the Mississippi River,” said Felton.
“We’ve done demonstrations in Maryland and it works well with our soil,” said Felton. “Now the industry has to take the invention and commercialize it.”