The chicken waste conundrum

Farming, according to President Harry S. Truman, a man familiar with rural life, depended on "good manure." When Mr. Truman's wife Bess was asked why the president couldn't use the more delicate word "fertilizer," she replied that it had taken her 25 years to get him to say "manure."

Whatever it is called — litter, droppings, excreta — it is a major factor in chicken farming, as anyone who has been caught downwind of a chicken house can attest.

Maryland produces nearly 300 million broilers per year, and a byproduct of that process is an estimated 400,000 pounds of what the industry refers to as "chicken litter." Keeping the runoff from this manure — whether it is stored on site or spread on fields — from fouling the Chesapeake Bay has been a contentious issue.

Environmental groups have filed lawsuits, including one now in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, contending that poultry producers like Perdue Farms Inc. (not just the farmers who raise the chickens for them) should be held accountable for any resulting runoff pollution. The poultry industry has countered that it is not responsible for what happens on a farmer's land and has warned that extensive regulation could threaten the viability of Eastern Shore enterprises built on producing cheap chicken.

One sign of progress, a program requiring many Maryland farmers to craft plans to reduce runoff, went into effect in December. These Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans spell out manure handling and storage procedures and require manure storage areas to be set back from waterways. But this program is experiencing some delays.

A recent report by the News21 team at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism found that almost no farmers have the training necessary to write the nutrient management plans required by the program. Moreover, the article said farmers were having trouble getting enough timely help from the web of federal and state agencies involved in the permit process. One Eastern Shore farmer who had submitted a plan said he was told there was a three-to-four-month delay before officials of the Maryland Department of Agriculture could take a look at his plan.

Robert M. Summers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said steps are under way to increase the number of state and federal staffers who can help farmers write a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan. This will speed up the certification process,

Already, many Maryland farmers, who control the amount of nutrients they apply to the soil and practice soil conservation, are in compliance with aspects of these plans, Mr. Summers said. There may be a backlog in the paperwork, but there is no delay in environmental protection, he said. "Most good farmers are already doing these things, " he said in an interview.

Mr. Summers characterized the comprehensive plan as a "graduate-school-level degree" in farm pollution control and said that 15 of the state's 500 animal feeding operators already obtained that level and that many more are in process.

After some prodding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maryland is working to reduce many of the sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Sewage treatment plants, industries, urban storm water runoff, septic systems and emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks are getting a hard look. Agriculture — especially large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations that produce potentially harmful amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus — has to face new environmental regulations as well.

It is heartening that Maryland farmers are looking for ways to turn their animal waste into what, in Mr. Truman's terminology, might be called "good manure."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad