The four major poultry processers in Virginia announced an agreement April 21 to protect water quality by getting their contract turkey and chicken farmers to limit manure and fertilizer use.

The policy adopted by WLR Foods, Rocco, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms is unprecedented in the industry, said Virginia Poultry Federation President John Johnson.

"I don't know anywhere in the country where the major agribusinesses have come together to implement a water quality policy like this," Johnson said.

About half of the 1,500 poultry farmers already have nutrient management plans that are designed in part to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that washes off the land into rivers and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia are pushing toward a turn of the century goal of reducing nutrients that pollute the Bay by 40 percent from 1985 levels.

Joe Maroon, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said effective, site-specific nutrient management plans "will be an important contributor to the restoration of the Bay."

"Nutrient management," Johnson said, "is one of those rare situations where what's practical and cost effective also makes sense for the environment."

The four poultry companies have adopted a policy of requiring all new growers to have a nutrient management plan before beginning operation and is working to get all existing growers to operate with the plans.

Under a nutrient management plan, chicken and turkey manure is tested for its fertilizer value and applied at specific rates that correspond to crop needs.

Johnson said farmers with the nutrient plans send manure and soil samples to laboratories for analysis. The farmers can then determine how many pounds per acre of nitrogen their crops need and how many pounds per acre of manure they should spread to provide the nitrogen.

"This is site-specific, prescription farming," Johnson said.

Several counties already require nutrient management plans and about 30 others are considering whether to enact the requirement.

The industry may sponsor a series of grower meetings, Johnson said, to educate them about nutrient management. The state already has nutrient management specialists advising farmers and is working to set up a certification plan to expand the number of specialists.

"We hope to expand the pool of technical assistance," Johnson said.