|State's poultry boom sparks concern for environment
by Nora Edinger
There are 100 million chickens in West Virginia -- about 50 chickens per human resident.
Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass predicts the poultry industry will be further spreading its wings in the next two years -- a possibility that has several camps taking notice or, in some cases, taking political aim.
For Douglass, the more the merrier. The chickens and about 4.5 million turkeys are the state's No. 1 agricultural product, bringing in about $200 million annually and employing about 2,400 in the Moorefield area alone. About one-third of the chickens are sold to Europe and Asia.
"These hills -- people are beginning to realize them as an asset instead of a liability," Douglass said of a topographical quirk that has chicken companies eying the state favorably. "They protect the birds from diseases and viruses."
Most of the state industry is located in the Eastern Panhandle, but Douglass sees it spreading, especially to old mining areas in the south where flat land is available. One facility, a Perdue Farms, Inc., hatchery, is coming to Randolph County this year.
For veterinarian-turned-environmentalist Dr. Mary Janes, however, more chickens simply means more water pollution.
Janes, who heads the Potomac Headwaters Resource Alliance and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition from the Eastern Panhandle, has been campaigning for stricter animal waste controls since the poultry industry there tripled in the early 1990s.
"Chicken litter is like anything else -- a little bit of it is fine, but a whole lot isn't," Janes said, noting West Virginia's poultry produces 155,000 tons of manure a year, a figure Douglass agrees to.
She has the empathy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has a proposal pending to regulate livestock and poultry waste at large farms in connection to the Clean Water Act.
It was recognizable water-quality problems in the Eastern Panhandle -- where several rivers are labeled endangered by the EPA -- that inspired the state to encourage the shipping of chicken litter to other counties. Litter is a dry mix of manure and bedding.
The McConnell family of Doddridge County, however, would prefer the Eastern Panhandle keeps its chicken litter to itself or that the state regulate its use more tightly.
Joe and Marla McConnell have complained to several state officials that runoff from poultry waste used on a neighbor's farm has tipped the nutrient scale in one of four ponds on their 100-acre property, which was a finalist for state Farm of the Year in 1990.
"This is my pond and I enjoyed it and somebody messed it up," said Marla McConnell.
She said the 50-year-old pond began having excessive plant growth one year following her neighbor's enrollment in the state's chicken litter fertilizer program. She said a fish kill followed in 1999.
Tom Porter, the neighbor using the chicken litter for fertilizer and cattle feed, said he has followed best-management practices recommended by the state, such as storing litter on a concrete pad and keeping it covered with tarps. He said untarped piles on his property are sawdust or composting cattle manure he sells to vineyards.
He believes the McConnell's pond problems are related to its age and plans to use chicken litter indefinitely.
Tom Basden, a West Virginia University extension specialist for nutrient management, is not sure what the exact problem is.
"There's nothing definitively that said it was (chicken litter) but there could have been a contributing factor, definitely," Basden said, adding the McConnell problem could be solved with dredging and lime application.
"I do think that Tom Porter has followed all the steps (recommended by the state)," Basden said.
But, in West Virginia, he really doesn't have to, Janes said of the "bad actor" potential for pollution by chicken litter users.
West Virginia relies on voluntary compliance with best-management practices instead of having laws, something Douglass said is working fine.
He said suspected pollution problems can be reported to the Department of Environmental Protection and fines can potentially be issued. Also, Department of Agriculture labs can now do DNA testing on fecal coliform that is verified through WVU to pinpoint the species that is the source of the pollution.
Several nearby states, including Maryland and North Carolina, have stricter regulations, however.
Dr. Leonard Bull, associate director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at North Carolina State University, said while states do not necessarily need an air-tight law, there needs to be something in place.
North Carolina has developed waste laws more extensive than the EPA proposals in response to a state agricultural industry that is second only to Iowa for hogs and is tops in turkeys.
Janes favors even tighter controls, such as regulations on how well litter must be composted before it can be applied to fields to ensure the destruction of bacteria.
She would also like to see the cost of litter disposal fall more onto the processing companies instead of the contracted growers, some of whom she said are deeply in debt for the construction of chicken houses.
She would also like to see the agricultural world take a hard look at the factory farm concept.
"Maybe God just did not mean for a chicken to live in an area the size of a toaster with 25,000 other chickens next to it," Janes said.
Bull, however, said it would be hard to go back to smaller farms because of economies of scale. Now, Americans spend about 10 percent of their income on food as compared to 20 percent in the past.
"I don't see any indication that the general population is interested in reversing that," Bull said. "We need to find a way to deal with it (animal waste) cheaply."
Douglass is convinced that, while the system may not yet be perfect, shipping the litter out as fertilizer, even as far away as the Midwest, is that way.
"There is a great demand for it," he said.
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.