WASHINGTON – Businesses appear to be lining up to take manure off poultry farms and haul it into money-making operations ranging from composting to electric power generation.
One state agriculture official said that the sudden demand might outstrip the 400,000 tons of “poultry litter” — manure, with wood shavings and sawdust from bedding — that are produced every year on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The combined tonnage of litter needed for just a few of the businesses that are competing to turn manure into a resource comes to 440,000 tons, more than half the 800,000 tons produced annually on the entire Delmarva peninsula.
“We support all of these different concepts. Our only concern is that we don’t get too overburdened with too many that are competing with each other,” said Brad Powers, assistant secretary of agriculture for marketing, animal industries and consumer services.
The demand for manure stems in part from a 1998 state law requiring all operations that produce or use animal waste to develop nutrient management plans, which will be phased in over the next several years.
Farmers have traditionally spread manure on their fields as fertilizer. But the same phosphorus and nitrogen that makes manure valuable as a fertilizer makes it a problem when it runs off into Maryland’s waterways, where it has been linked to fish kills caused by the microbe Pfiesteria piscicida.
Because of that, the state has started several efforts to reduce poultry manure runoff. One is the Animal Waste Technology Fund, a state-run grant program that helps fund efforts to find alternative uses for manure.
“The concept was to come up with ways to do something so that (manure) would not be spread on the land,” said Bob Brennan. He is assistant secretary for finance for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, which administers the program.
Enter the entrepreneurs.
Pat Condon, who turns waste from crab operations into compost, began experimenting with poultry manure five years ago. Today, his Cambridge company, New Earth Services, produces Chesapeake Blue compost, from crabs, and Chesapeake Green, from poultry manure. He expects to process 6,000 tons of poultry litter this year.
Tom Johnson hopes to build a fertilizer plant in Somerset County that could process as much as 100,000 tons of litter a year. His Salisbury-based company, Eastern Shore Forest Products, is also testing a cubed form of manure that can be burned in a boiler to generate steam or electricity.
Missouri-based AgriRecycle and Perdue Farms are in a joint venture to build a plant in Sussex County, Del., that would turn about 88,000 tons of manure each year into 80,000 tons of fertilizer pellets that could be sold nationwide and overseas.
And Fibrowatt, a company that runs three manure-burning power plants in England, has asked the Dorchester County Commission to let it build a generating plant that would burn some 250,000 tons of poultry litter a year.
The projects would not create a lot of jobs, Brennan said, but they will help “sustain our poultry industry on the shore.”
The business owners are also motivated by profit. AgriRecycle President Mike Ferguson said he expects the deal with Perdue to bring in “the lion’s share, a little over 50 percent” of his company’s business.
Not everything manure touches has turned to gold, however.
Johnson won a contract from the Maryland Environmental Service to make fuel cubes from manure. They were burned in a pilot program to generate steam and electricity at Eastern Correctional Institution. State officials later decided that the technology was too costly and unreliable, but Johnson continues to experiment with burning cubes in boilers converted from other fuels.
Other plans have run into obstacles. Delaware-based Conectiv considered converting its oil-burning Vienna power plant to run on chicken manure, but that plan was put on hold when a Minnesota company agreed to buy the plant.
Maryland withdrew a promise of $500,000 for the Perdue AgriRecycle project after the company said it wanted to locate in Delaware. But plans are proceeding for a plant in Sussex County, Del.
Perdue AgriRecycle board member Wayne Hudson said the company hopes to begin construction in November at a site between Seaford and Laurel. Truckloads of manure would be hauled into the plant — to help contain odors — where it would be screened, dried, ground and formed into uniformly sized pellets. The plan is to sell most of the pellets to farms in the Midwest, Hudson said.
“Pelletizing it … gets it into a form that’s easily handled and transported [and] kills mold or fungus,” he said.
Sending Maryland chicken waste to fertilize Midwestern cornfields completes a circle, said Powers. “If you think about it, it’s in a balance: The nitrogen and phosphorus comes on corn and soy grown there” and used as chicken feed, which is how the nutrients end up in manure, he said.
Limits on how much manure can be used as fertilizer will be determined over the next several years and could be influenced by other factors, such as a requirement to alter chicken feed in an attempt to reduce the elements that come out the other end.
Powers said it is too early to say if there will be enough manure to go around.
“It’s not to say Fibrowatt wouldn’t be successful. [But] what are they going to have to pay for the manure?” he asked.
“There’s still a bunch of unanswered questions, from research and development of some of the technology,” said Brennan.