When President Bush pardoned “Biscuits” shortly before Thanksgiving last year, the president thanked local turkey farmer Kevin Foltz for feeding his turkey “American corn” and “American soybeans.”
“And from the looks of it, he had a pretty healthy appetite,” the president joked at the time.
That’s only half the story, so to speak.
Turkeys, chickens and other farm animals in the Shenandoah Valley also create an enormous amount of manure—more manure than can be safely applied on nearby fields. So much manure that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls the Shenandoah Valley one of three manure “hot spots” in the Bay’s watershed.
If this were a fairy tale, the miller’s daughter, locked in a room and facing certain death, would ask Rumpelstiltskin to turn straw into gold.
But, this is waste management.
In this story, farmers, bureaucrats and environmentalists think they can turn straw—or manure in this case—into gold.
For the first time, the long-time adversaries are working together to find new uses for the manure produced in the counties draining into the Shenandoah River.
A plan calls for a wider use of feed management, a greater demand for products made from manure, the development of new technologies to store and process manure, new efforts to transport manure to places where the natural fertilizer can be better used and dozens of other ideas.
“People are trying to pull together to explore innovative solutions that deal with surplus animal manure in the Shenandoah Valley,” said Hobey Baughn of the Virginia Poultry Federation.
“As an industry, we’ve wanted to support efforts to increase the value of poultry litter by increasing demand, both as a spoil amendment and fertilizer, and as an alternative energy fuel source,” said Baughn, who credited Virginia Tech dairy expert Katherine Knowlton for bringing disparate interests together for the first time.
In a region where farm animals dramatically outnumber people, it’s no surprise that there is more manure than there are fields where the fertilizer can be applied.
But, what is a surprise is that farmers, environmentalists, academics and government officials are working together to find new solutions to an old problem that has been growing steadily worse in recent years.
For farmers, creating new uses for manure could help producers comply with new state regulations and provide the extra income that keeps agriculture profitable. Regulations that limit manure applications on farm fields have increased the supply of manure—and reduced the price farmers can earn selling it to their neighbors.
For environmentalists, creating new uses for manure will reduce the application of the fertilizer in fields that already have plenty of nitrogen and phosphorous.
“Ecologically, the restoration of the Bay is at a tipping point, on the brink of either success or failure,” said Theresa Pierno formerly with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the environmental groups that initiated the unusual dialogue. “Economically, farmers are also at a tipping point.”
Pierno and other participants in the new dialogue think the Shenandoah Valley could serve as a beacon of hope for other Bay farmers and ultimately “lead the world in efficiently using manure as a resource for both economic and environmental benefit.”
One simple solution, experts and dialogue participants say, may be to look at what’s going in the front end of animal rather than what’s coming out the back end.
Participants in the dialogue agreed that more farmers should be encouraged to change feed practices that help reduce the nutrients that go in—and therefore help reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that comes out.
Baughn said Virginia’s poultry farmers have already seen the results of using a feed additive. One study has found that nitrogen and phosphorous could be reduced, respectively, by up to 50 and 60 percent through simple changes in feed that have no impact on animal health.
Farmers and environmentalists also hope to create new, lucrative markets for manure—ranging from energy production to the bagged fertilizer sold at local garden stores.
For example, farmers and environmentalists may propose the creation of a regional manure “digester,” a large, capped manure storage facility that traps and burns the methane produced by manure to produce energy. The energy produced by the manure could be used to provide power on farms or sold to power producers like Dominion Power.
Or, farmers and environmentalists might also lobby power companies to build power plants fueled by poultry litter and other farm waste.
One plant now being developed in Maryland would use more than 200,000 tons of poultry litter every year to produce 30 to 40 megawatts of electricity. Construction has begun on a Minnesota power plant that will use 500,000 tons of litter, as well as farm biomass, to produce 50 megawatts annually.
“There’s no silver bullet,” said Baughn of the Poultry Federation, “but there are some promising technologies.” He cited the efforts of a Georgia company to use litter as a fuel source for a lumber mill.
Efforts might also be undertaken to expand the composting of litter for use as a soil amendment—on the farm or in backyards.
Baughn and others said market forces will help to solve the problem, and that an infusion of state and federal funds would help to prime the pump. Participants in the dialogue ultimately hope to bring their ideas to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.
Farm programs expire in 2007, and Chairman Goodlatte will begin work on a new Farm Bill next year.
“The public has played a role in creating the manure problem by its increased demand for meat products and low-cost food, so governments, businesses and citizens must all contribute to reducing nutrient pollution from manure,” Pierno said.
Manure is too much of a good thing in many counties in the Bay watershed, according to farm experts.
For every person in Bay watershed, there are 11 cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens and other animals raised by the region’s farmers.
Those animals produce a prodigious amount of manure—44 million tons containing nearly 600 million pounds of nitrogen and about 165 million pounds of phosphorous.
If those nutrients are washed off farm fields, they ignite a chain reaction that reduces dissolved oxygen levels in rivers like the Shenandoah and, ultimately, the Bay. As a result, manure is the second largest source of nitrogen and phosphorous reaching the Bay, studies show.
Many of these farm animals are concentrated in three regions—Lancaster County, PA, the Delmarva Peninsula, and the Shenandoah Valley—according to a recent report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Although the report found that animal waste was a major threat to the Bay, the study also found that “dramatic improvements in water quality can be achieved in a relatively short period of time," said CBF President Will Baker.
But, Baker said, success will ultimately depend on two factors: public assistance and significant farmer involvement.
“Replicating those two factors across the Chesapeake watershed may be difficult, but they must happen if the Bay is to be saved,” he said. “The Chesapeake Bay is being choked by excess manure, and despite years of effort, the Bay's water quality is not improving. Action to stop the pollution must begin now, not next year or several years from now.”