As the Bay states and the District of Columbia wrestle with how to achieve the 40 percent nutrient reduction goal, Virginia's poultry industry has taken the bold step of voluntarily committing to the implementation of nutrient management planning statewide.
On April 21, 1995, the eve of Earth Day, the Virginia Poultry Federation announced that all four of the major poultry integrators in Virginia (WLR Foods, Rocco, Tyson Foods and Purdue Farms) had adopted a policy of requiring all new growers, in all Virginia counties, to have a nutrient management plan before beginning operation. Furthermore, the industry is establishing a goal of having all existing growers operate with a nutrient management plan as soon as the plans can be written by the appropriate state agencies. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time anywhere in the United States that a group of agribusinesses have come together to jointly implement such a water quality initiative.
Why did the poultry industry make this commitment at this time? The answer includes a variety of factors.
The poultry industry has had more experience with nutrient management planning than any other sector of agriculture. In 1988, Rockingham County, the center of Virginia's poultry industry, adopted an ordinance requiring nutrient management plans. Our experience with this ordinance has shown that nutrient management is a practical and cost effective way to protect water quality and maintain farm efficiency.
It is important to understand that the county exhibited a practical and flexible attitude toward nutrient management. The county Cooperative Extension Service also provided a great deal of assistance and wrote more than 500 plans for county farmers.
Equally important was the fact that the plans were kept basic and simple. There are some in Richmond and in Washington, D.C. who would like to make nutrient management a highly technical and detailed process. This is a sure recipe for a bloated bureaucracy and program failure.
From a poultry perspective, we need to know the average nutrient value of the litter, average soil productivity and expected nutrient uptake of the planned crop rotation and then apply the litter accordingly.
Since nitrogen is the most challenging nutrient to manage, both on the farm and in the Bay, nutrient management plans should be nitrogen-based. The nature of phosphorous binds it tightly to soil particles, which means if you control soil erosion, you control phosphorous loadings. Nitrogen, on the other hand, is highly mobile, readily leaching through the soil. For this reason, nutrient management planning should focus primarily on nitrogen, and phosphorus should be addressed primarily through soil conservation planning.
To date, nutrient management planning in Virginia has had these practical characteristics for the most part. We have noticed, however, that these practical considerations begin to fade with the increased involvement of people far removed from the local area, i.e. Richmond or Washington.
By endorsing basic and practical nutrient management, the poultry industry hopes to preserve the characteristics of a program that will ensure implementation and improved water quality for the Bay.
Another consideration in our endorsement was the appeal by Secretary of Natural Resources Becky Norton Dunlop. Secretary Dunlop has made repeated trips to the Shenandoah Valley appealing to industry groups, local governments and private citizens to formulate grassroots solutions to water quality challenges as part of Virginia's Tributary Strategy for the Potomac watershed.
After listening to her message, our industry agreed that it was in our own best interest to consider what practical measures we could take to enhance water quality, lest in the future, someone in Richmond or Washington prescribe measures that were less than practical, as they are wont to do.
Also factored into our decision to endorse nutrient management was the fact that we believe the vast majority of poultry producers are already using their litter in an environmentally responsible manner. A nutrient management plan will allow us to document our practices and demonstrate to our urban cousins that we are good stewards of our environment.
Farmers have a vested interest in water quality. Our livestock drink the water, we irrigate our crops with the water, and Mama and the baby drink the water. We also fish the streams, canoe the rivers and occasionally travel to the Chesapeake Bay. For these reasons, we will continue to explore and implement practical, cost- effective measures to improve water quality. If government agencies would emphasize technical assistance and education, reduce the centralized bureaucracy and empower their people in the field (i.e. nutrient management planners, soil and water conservation districts and county extension agents), together we could form a truly constructive partnership for water quality and the Bay.