A new coalition of farmers, scientists, poultry companies and government agencies is working on the Delmarva Peninsula to determine the best ways to both manage nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and keep farmers in business.

The initiative, called the Delmarva Land and Litter Challenge, released its first report in August. In it, the group states that the farms have not made as much progress in cleanup as they or the regulators would like because technology that could reduce pollution is slow to develop and data on how best to employ it is not as accurate as it needs to be.

The group is focusing on two themes: better technologies to transform manure into energy and assistance in incorporating land-applied manure into the soil so that it’s less likely to run off and is more available to crops.

The group would also like a Center of Excellence on the Delmarva Peninsula to bring all of the research on agriculture under one roof. The center would provide its own data and also give farmers “nutrient management support” to help them understand what was happening on their own farms. The hope is that an integrated approach would provide “mass balance” data, telling researchers and farmers the exact nature of the manure surplus, where it is, how it can efficiently be transported elsewhere and where it should go.

At present, various universities on the Shore, including the University of Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, are engaged in research projects on phosphorus, poultry manure emissions and ways to reduce runoff. But, Land and Litter Challenge Facilitator Ernie Shea said the data are not available to farmers in a way that they can take it and make changes quickly. The center, he said, would make the information accessible.

The group would also like guidelines for practices like manure storage and transport to be uniform across the watershed. As it stands now, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania have different rules. A truck could traverse the states in one day and be required to follow four different sets of rules for manure transport.

Shea said manure-to-energy is an idea whose time has come, but an approach has not yet been decided. Many different entrepreneurs have arrived on Delmarva promising to build the ultimate facility to transform manure into energy. A couple are in the pilot stages, but none are ready to accept large quantities of manure from multiple farmers. Many questions about the right approach remain: Do farmers want small, on-farm facilities, or do they want to pool the manure and have it processed at a central place, like the Perdue AgriCycle facility does in Delaware? And if they do build a large plant like that one, how will they reduce air emissions?

“We’re early on in the deployment of technologies that could provide for an alternative use,” Shea said. “Don’t bet the farm on any one solution set today. When we finally figure this out, it will be an integrated path.”

Shea, who spent 10 years with the Maryland Department of Agriculture and 20 years running the association of soil conservation districts in Washington, has a small consulting firm in the Baltimore suburbs called Solutions for the Land in which he looks at land-based solutions to keep farmers working and conserving land throughout the country. Shea said he modeled the Land and Litter challenge after similar, successful efforts in the western part of the country. Montana, in particular, has a coalition of ranchers, conservationists, educators and government officials working to preserve the Blackfoot watershed, which encompasses 1.5 million acres west of the Continental Divide.

Shea said the first report was only the beginning and that the group continues to add partners. The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have signed on, as well as Perdue, Mountaire and the agencies in the Maryland governor’s Bay cabinet.

The report touched on a common refrain among farmers: They are trying their best, but they are operating with a deficit of information. They know what the Chesapeake Bay model says, Shea explained, but they are not sure how much nutrients are being generated, where pollutants are going and how fast they are arriving. Shea is hoping that, with quarterly meetings and a coordinated push, farmers and integrators will have more of that information. Solutions from the Land, he said, will be working to grow the group’s reach.

“Our role is going to be to facilitate,” Shea said. “It’s not going to be easy. These are, in some cases, strange bedfellows agreeing to work together.

The Delmarva Land and Litter Challenge report was funded by the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment.