Virginia aims to improve water quality by transporting tons of poultry waste around the state

By: - October 4, 2019 12:01 am

Poultry barns on the Eastern Shore. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia has a novel new approach to meeting its water quality goals: moving chicken waste around the state.

As the 2025 deadline for Chesapeake Bay cleanup approaches, the commonwealth is vastly expanding a program that transports poultry litter — a product that includes not only fowl excrement but also leftover bedding and uneaten feed — out of the watershed’s most intensive poultry-producing counties.

To do so, the state is paying farmers who agree to use the litter subsidies of $7.50, $15 or $20 per ton, depending on its origin and destination.

“There’s market demand for it,” said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, an industry association that advocates for poultry producers. “I don’t even consider it a waste. It’s a fertilizer and soil-improving product.”

But, he pointed out, “there is a geographic limit” when it comes to the economics of transporting chicken waste over long distances. Go too far, and fuel costs will push the price of litter above that of commercial fertilizers.

So why is Virginia concerned with keeping the price of barnyard bird dung low? Four words: Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Poultry litter, like cow manure or any other fertilizer, contains large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. When used in appropriate quantities on fields, the nutrients are taken up by plants as food, helping crops flourish. When too much is applied, however, the excess leaches into the ground and runs off into waterways, where it causes algal blooms that block sunlight and create “dead zones” where no species can survive.

The problem has been particularly acute on the Eastern Shore, encompassing parts of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey found that this region as a whole was responsible for a “disproportionately large” amount of the excess nutrients flowing into the bay, mostly from agricultural fertilizer and manure. Parts of the Shenandoah Valley with heavy concentrations of livestock have also been linked with high levels of water pollution.

At the same time, other parts of Virginia suffer from poor-quality, nutrient-deficient soils, leading farmers to turn to commercial fertilizers as a way to improve crops.

Almost two decades ago, the General Assembly sought to solve both problems — too many nutrients in some areas and too few in others — by creating a “poultry waste transportation” program. The idea was that replacing chemical fertilizers bought by farmers with litter that already existed in the state would produce “a net reduction of nutrients” running off Virginia fields into waterways, said Darryl Glover, director of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation.

Subsidies, which a 2001 study by Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Experiment Station found “would likely increase adoption rates,” were key to the proposal. Under the framework established by DCR, farmers who bought poultry litter from high-nutrient Rockingham and Page counties — which produce almost half of all poultry raised in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed — were paid $15 per ton they took. But with a budget of only $80,000, half of which came from the Virginia Poultry Federation, the program rarely succeeded in moving more than 6,000 tons per year.

Now, as Chesapeake Bay watershed states enter the third and final stage of their decades-long restoration efforts, Virginia officials want to see those loads increased 15-fold, to 89,000 tons annually.

The state is banking on three changes to make that possible: more funding, more counties exporting waste and better reporting of transports that are already occurring.

poultry litter transport map
Counties covered under Virginia’s Poultry Litter Transport Incentive Program. (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation)

Funding for the program more than tripled this year, with the state allocating $250,000 to the expansion and the Virginia Poultry Federation chipping in $40,000. Two months into the fiscal year, almost half of that — $138,000 — had been disbursed, accounting for more than 9,000 tons of poultry litter, said Glover.

With demand growing rapidly, far more money will be needed from the General Assembly to reach the 89,000-ton target, Glover acknowledged. But, he said, “we knew we couldn’t go from zero to 100 in one year.”

One of the most consequential changes this summer is the expansion of the number of jurisdictions exporting poultry litter under the program. Eventually officials hope to include five counties on their list; this summer, they added Accomack, which produces about 15 percent of all poultry in Virginia’s bay watershed, to Rockingham and Page.

In that rural county on the Eastern Shore, poultry is political. As chicken houses have proliferated in recent years, battles involving the industry, regulators and environmental groups have broken out over groundwater usage and water quality, with environmentalists pointing to poultry litter as one source of water pollution.

Dick Snyder, director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Laboratory, however, said that results from the first year of a three-year water monitoring project in Accomack didn’t show any elevated nutrient levels related to chicken houses.

“There were no obvious patterns associated with poultry operations,” he said, although he cautioned that it was too early in the data-gathering process to draw definite conclusions.

Also too early to determine is just how long it will take the state to reach its 89,000-ton goal. Officials have been forthright in acknowledging that far more poultry litter is being transported around Virginia annually than is recorded and incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay model, which determines whether or not a state is meeting its commitments to water quality improvement.

“We know that a good chunk of that 89,000 tons of transfer is likely already happening,” said James Davis-Martin, Chesapeake Bay Program manager with the Department of Environmental Quality, at a meeting of a technical advisory committee considering poultry litter transport this July. “We just don’t have good mechanisms to capture that.”

The poultry industry agrees: “We believe the Chesapeake Bay model is undercounting what is already being accomplished in the marketplace,” said Bauhan. “One of the challenges in this regulatory development process is to better account for litter transfers.”

How long the subsidies will be in place also depends on the state nailing down its current level of litter transport activity.

“We’re going to need some time to try to get a sense of what is moving,” said Glover.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]