Perdue Farms, one of the nation’s leading poultry producers, is adding a new product to its increasingly varied lineup: compost.

Through its AgriBusiness offshoot, the family-owned corporation based in Salisbury, MD, has begun converting organic wastes from its chicken processing plants and hatchery into fertilizer at a $12 million plant recently finished in neighboring Delaware.

Company officials say the new 15-acre facility, called AgriSoil, is expected before long to begin handling poultry litter — a mix of manure and wood shavings. That could offer Perdue’s many contract growers on the Delmarva Peninsula a new option for dealing with tightening regulatory restrictions on the traditional practice of spreading the manure from chicken houses on crop fields. 

Such spreading has contributed to the Chesapeake Bay's water-quality woes, but Perdue officials see producing compost at the 15-acre facility now up and running in Blades, DE, as an alternative that could inspire others  to reduce or reuse waste from animal agriculture.

The composting operation is sited next to Perdue’s AgriRecycle plant, which for more than 15 years has turned chicken manure into a pelletized fertilizer that’s largely sold out of state. Both plants are part of an effort to turn more waste from the poultry industry into new products, Perdue officials said.

But they’re also intended to reduce the amount of poultry waste spread on fields in the Bay watershed, particularly on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, the heart of the state’s poultry growing industry. Repeated applications of phosphorus-rich manure over many years have led to a buildup in some farm soils of the plant nutrient that’s contributing to the Bay’s algae blooms and dead zones.

The new facilities aren’t required by any existing regulations, company officials stress, but they acknowledge the operations could make it easier to comply in the future with regulations aimed at reducing phosphorus runoff.

“Instead of waiting until that becomes an issue, we went ahead and made the adjustment to have an environmental solution be part of the cost of doing business,” said Joe Forsthoffer, a Perdue spokesman.

Though expected eventually to handle poultry litter as well, for now AgriSoil will focus on providing a new outlet for other poultry byproducts that are currently land-applied. Those include the treated biosolids from two of Perdue’s processing plants, eggshells from the company’s hatchery and other organic residue like soybean stems.

“The thought was, can we take some of these (byproducts) and, instead of land-applying them, make a compost material?” explained Steve Levitsky, Perdue’s vice president of sustainability. “We started looking at it five years ago.”

Perdue’s AgriRecycle plant processes up to 50,000 tons of poultry litter a year into certified-organic fertilizer pellets, though it can handle 80,000 tons, Levitsky said. The pellets are sold to fertilizer companies such as Scotts and Espoma, with 78 percent shipped outside the Bay watershed.

Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said Perdue’s decision to continue investing in recycling of nutrient-rich poultry wastes on the Delmarva Peninsula is encouraging and sets an example for other producers in the state. He toured the new compost facility last week.

“The technologies of resource recovery and their commitment to beneficial reuse are promising for the environment.” Grumbles said. “I see it as one of the many strategies to speed up the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The company receives some funding from Maryland’s taxpayer-funded manure transport program, which provides grants of up to $20 per ton to  haul away manure from poultry growing operations to be applied to fields elsewhere “in an environmentally sound manner,” the program states.

Even with that incentive, Levitsky said environmental concerns, more than economic ones, were the main impetus to add a composting operation. The company expects the compost to one day pay for itself and justify the recent investment, “but for now it’s an environmental positive,” he said.

Perdue, which now claims to be the largest producer of organic poultry products in the world, also has been trying to improve its animal welfare image by adding windows to its growers’ chicken houses and eliminating the use of antibiotics, among other measures. The effort comes after animal-rights groups have released videos and some former growers have spoken out about practices at contract facilities.

The AgriSoil compost facility comes online as new Maryland Department of Agriculture regulations take effect restricting the spreading of manure on farm fields during the winter, when the nutrients in the animal waste can’t be taken up by plants and are more likely to run off or seep into waterways. The compost facility will make it easier for the company’s farms to comply with winter storage requirements that are part of those regulations, company officials say.

The state also is phasing in new restrictions on farmers’ application of phosphorous-rich manure, focusing first on fields that already are saturated with the nutrient. Those rules, to be fully in effect by 2022, are expected to impact farms, particularly on the Lower Shore.

Perdue spent several years researching the best technologies for composting what had been considered waste to reduce the amount of raw, nutrient-rich materials being spread directly on fields. Officials considered manure digestion or incineration, which could produce energy or reduce waste — but such processes still left behind byproducts such as phosphorous or ash that would be difficult to sell.  Producing compost made the most sense for the scale of operation that Perdue was considering, company officials said.

Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he has been following the compost project since Perdue officials first informed his organization early in its research process. He said turning raw materials that would have been spread onto fields into a composted product can help promote soil health on farms and reduce nutrient saturation.

He said he believes the compost will be better than manure, environmentally, because it will be produced to contain specified levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which ought to make it easier for farmers to comply with nutrient management plans that limit how much of each should be applied to raise crops.

“If you’re just throwing egg shells on a field, we have to guess,” Myers said. “This product will have a standardized nutrient analysis, and farmers will know how much they're applying.”

AgriSoil expedites the natural process of decay that returns the nutrients in organic material to the soil, where it can help new plants grow. The facility starts by mixing shredded wood, egg shells and litter from the hatchery and nutrient-rich wastewater from poultry processing plants, then “curing” it for about two weeks in outdoor beds, said Wayne Hudson, vice president of operations for Perdue AgriBusiness. The beds are covered with a special odor-trapping fabric as the material decomposes, allowing some evaporation but maintaining desired moisture levels.

The mixture is turned and continues curing for a few more weeks as the plant monitors its moisture levels, then screens out the woodchips to be reused.

The process, Forsthoffer said, reduces and concentrates the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the material, while evaporation reduces the weight of the final product.

Perdue plans to sell the compost mostly to fertilizer companies, who might then add their own ingredients to customize the product. Hudson said those companies have expressed interest in receiving material that has a predictable and consistent recipe, especially when compared with municipal waste compost streams, which could include plastic bits or remnants of household products. Levitsky said he does not yet know whether Perdue will sell its own branded compost or make it available in bulk to local landscapers.

Grumbles and Myers both said they would like other companies that handle manure to consider recycling those nutrients into new products. Myers said another similar plant would be a great fit for the Lower Shore, where phosphorous saturation on fields is the highest.

“This model could be replicable for other poultry processors,” Myers said. “Perdue has given a great model for how to do that.”