WASHINGTON – Farmers have known for generations that manure makes good fertilizer. It wasn’t until recently that they realized that there can be too much of a good thing.
Before headlines linked runoff from manure-fertilized fields to water quality problems, however, farmers and farm businesses said they were already looking for ways to, once again, turn a waste product into a resource.
Those efforts are now beginning to pay off in technologies, most still in the research stages, that promise to turn manure into compost, fuel or a more- refined form of fertilizer.
“We sort of saw (the manure problem) coming. I never expected it to come that fast,” said Pat Condon, owner of New Earth Services.
Condon, a former securities broker from Chicago, runs a 30-acre composting operation in Hurlock that processed 3,000 tons of poultry waste last year. He expects to double that this year.
Condon credits Maryland Cooperative Extension compost experts for giving him a heads up on the opportunity to cash in on the excess manure supply. He said they told him years ago to begin developing a compost from manure, because they knew then that farmers were using more nutrients than their fields could absorb.
“We’ve been working with it for probably five years, before the Pfiesteria,” Condon said. Pfiesteria is a toxic microbe that has been linked to fish kills and is believed to be triggered by excessive nutrients.
Since then, Condon has carefully developed a compost “recipe” that includes food processing waste, crabs, clams, vegetables, plant cuttings and poultry manure. The finished compost is trucked to West Virginia, where it is bagged and sold as “Chesapeake Green,” to distinguish it from his crab compost, “Chesapeake Blue.”
Tom Johnson began cleaning out chicken houses about a year ago and selling the manure for fertilizer to farmers up to 200 miles inland in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Johnson already knew a lot of chicken farmers through his Eastern Shore Forest Products in Salisbury. His company’s biggest selling item is poultry bedding, and cleaning out the houses was a natural outgrowth of that business.
“We started as soon as there was a need,” said Johnson.
“The (Water Quality Protection Act) didn’t mandate anything to start happening until 2003. But some farmers, realizing that maybe they were over- applying phosphorus, they voluntarily started cutting back,” he said.
Perdue Farms began researching alternatives to land application of manure about three years ago, said company spokeswoman Tita Cherrier. It decided to join forces with a Missouri company in a joint venture that will turn manure into easily shipped fertilizer pellets.
Mike Ferguson of AgriRecycle, the Missouri fertilizer firm, said his company and Perdue “kind of found each other. We were in the fertilizer business and had developed technology that they became interested in. We were looking for a new location … that had a high concentration of our raw material,” poultry manure.
Cherrier said Perdue considered several options.
“We looked at burning and composting. We felt that this was the best option,” she said. “Composting you need a certain amount of land. Burning, you have the ash, which has phosphorus.
“The reason we started this was to keep (poultry farming) viable on the Delmarva,” Cherrier said. “You don’t want to go broke, you hope it’s going to turn a profit. (But) we’re not expecting it’s going to be a moneymaker.”
In the meantime, Johnson said people keep coming to him with ideas for new ways to use poultry litter.
“We are certainly looking at everything … as time goes on, we’ll spread out. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said.