Moving the manure somewhere

October 19, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- There's a manure pile half as big as a house which I pass every morning on the way to my barn. This winter we'll spread it, and other manure, too, on fields we use for hay or row-crop production. Meanwhile, it makes me think about fish. The connection is pretty clear.

When a microorganism named Pfiesteria piscicida burst into the news a month ago by killing fish and sickening people, the rush to find both answers and scapegoats created a thunderous three-way collision between science, politics and economics.

At first, everybody was shouting at once. But now the noise is beginning to subside a little, and almost everyone involved is talking about manure.

There seems to be general agreement that high nutrient levels in the affected waterways helped convert Pfiesteria from a seldom-noticed alga into a headline-grabbing toxic horror. And there's almost as much general agreement that the nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, came from chicken manure -- a byproduct of one of the Eastern Shore's major industries.

The fight right now, and surely for months if not years to come, is over what should be done about that manure -- and implicitly about all livestock manure produced by all Maryland farms. After all, as one Chesapeake naturalist I know put it, "if [Washington's] Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant can keep human waste out of the Potomac, there must be a way to keep animal waste out of the Bay."

One element thinks the way is regulation. You just stop farmers, or at least farmers with a lot of livestock, from spreading manure on the land. Make them ship it out of state, or, alternatively, go out of the livestock business.

There are legal and economic complications to such a draconian approach, of course, but who really cares? Pass the laws and save the bay. We don't need farmers in Maryland; there's plenty of food at the supermarket.

A less militant group thinks the answer is education. (If you teach farmers how to avoid polluting, they'll stop doing it.) Another favors cash incentives. (If you pay farmers not to pollute, they'll stop.)

I'm a farmer, a fisherman, and a conservationist, and I've followed this issue closely. But for a couple of reasons, I haven't written much about it.

Complex science

First, the science seems so complex I've been a little intimidated. And second, people I know well and whose judgment I respect aren't anywhere near agreement about what should be done.

But it seems to me there are certain points which are well worth making, and which haven't so far received much attention. Here are a few of them.

Manure from farm animals is both a waste product and a commodity. In the right places and in the right amounts it's valuable, as a substitute for commercial chemical fertilizers and as replacement for organic materials lost to the soil through crop production.

High-intensity livestock operations, such as those of broiler producers on the Eastern Shore, are usually conducted on limited acreage. So, unless the manure they produce is moved off the premises, pollution is all but inevitable. Pennsylvania recognized this several years ago and enacted new controls on factory-type farms.

But the challenge isn't to shut down the farms which produce most of the manure. The challenge is to get the manure to the cropland which can best use it, rather than to the nearest empty field. My guess is that if this were efficiently done throughout the Eastern Shore, dangerously-high nutrient levels on some farms would soon slide down, while other farms would see reduced costs of fertilizer.

(One note: Reducing phosphorus, probably the major chemical culprit, takes more time than reducing nitrogen, because growing crops utilize nitrogen very rapidly. Phosphorus, on the other hand, lingers in the soil much longer, and poses a greater threat to downstream waterways.)

There is precedent for trucking manure to where it will do the most good. For years, southern Pennsylvania mushroom farmers have picked up manure from Maryland horse farms and racetracks. Years ago they paid for it, but now they generally haul it for free. The horse people, most of them on small acreages, are glad to have this disposal service, and the mushroom growers get an indispensable resource at low cost. It's a market solution that works.

On our farm, we return all our manure to the fields, generally semi-composting it for several months first. We're not an especially high-intensity operation, and we could make efficient use of more manure if we had it. If chicken manure were available, we'd consider it for our crop ground. We keep close track of nutrient levels in our soils through regular testing, and make manure management an important part of our conservation planning.

As to the big pile mentioned above, we'll probably start on it in November. That'll be after the first hard frost. It'll also be, by an interesting coincidence, after the close of the fall rockfish season.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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