Perdue: Chicken waste handled in environmentally responsible manner

April 06, 2010

Wenonah Hauter and Robert S. Lawrence ("Perdue needs to take responsibility," April 5) are certainly entitled to their opinions, no matter how strained their logic. They could also at least try to get their facts straight.

They repeat a mantra that immediately tags them as woefully ignorant about agriculture: that animal manure is "waste" and that farmers are not "compensated" for dealing with it. In reality, farmers understand that manure is a rich, natural fertilizer (just what do you think your "organic" food grows in, anyway?) and is widely used instead of expensive chemicals. Since many farmers grow crops as well as chickens, they use the manure on their own land as a cost-effective plant nutrient. Farmers who don't need it for themselves may sell it to other farmers or manure brokers. The manure these authors regard so dismissively most likely fertilizes crops like the Pennsylvania mushrooms and Delaware corn they find in their grocery store.

In 2001, Perdue set up the nation's first commercial-scale facility to turn chicken litter (manure plus the wood shavings used for flooring) into organic fertilizer approved for all uses under USDA's National Organic Program. It was created for farmers who choose not to use or sell their litter. The company does not charge farmers to clean out their chicken houses nor to transport the litter. Perdue AgriRecyle has been in operation for nine years, during which time it has verifiably removed tens of millions of pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. No other poultry company in the region is doing anything like this. So, farmers who are being "saddled" and "burdened" by poultry litter, as the authors suggest, have had a willing recipient for their material for nearly a decade.

The authors also describe poultry production in terms that would make any muckraker cringe, with chickens growing in "crowded and unhygienic conditions" and pollution "running off into our groundwater and waterways." In fact, chickens are grown in very large, spacious houses without cages so they are free to roam, and they are kept indoors to protect them from weather extremes (remember all that snow?), predators and disease. If the conditions were unsanitary, the chickens would get sick or die, and then neither the farmers nor Perdue would make any money. That wouldn't be a very good business model for a company celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Plus, those same houses keep the litter from going anywhere.

As for Jim Perdue "blaming" others for the lawsuit now getting so much attention, what he actually said was that the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) should move quickly when allegations of environmental misdeeds occur and let the chips fall where they may. This is to establish the facts rather than allow mistruths to spread and to keep opportunists like the Waterkeepers from threatening farmers with ruinous lawsuits. Case in point: MDE determined the pile of supposed poultry litter behind the Waterkeepers lawsuit was actually biosolids — treated sludge — from a municipal wastewater treatment plant. It was not even poultry-related material.

It is the absence of information that leads extremists to concoct conspiracies and bend the facts to suit their own agendas. Your readers, and the public, deserve better.

Luis A. Luna, Salisbury

The writer is vice president of corporate communication of Perdue Inc.

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