A generation of Maryland farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have tried to meet two goals: produce the food our growing country needs and reduce the amount of nutrients their lands deliver to the country’s largest estuary. They have made greater advances toward both goals than the farmers before them could ever have envisioned, increasing chicken production substantially over the past 35 years while reducing their yearly nitrogen contribution by 11.6 million pounds and cutting phosphorus runoff by 1.2 million pounds a year. During that time, Maryland’s population grew from 4.5 million to 6.1 million.
The uncomfortable truth is that, while farmers have answered the call to reduce pollution, developed areas seem to have taken it as permission to pollute more. For every 8 pounds of nitrogen Maryland farmers kept out of the Bay through improved practices in the past 10 years, Maryland’s developed areas have added back 1 pound, by way of stormwater runoff, according to Chesapeake Bay Program models. For phosphorus, it’s 1 pound added for every 13 pounds eliminated by farmers.
How have farmers and the companies they collaborate with reduced pollution? By changing their day-to-day operations and investing in strategies to reroute and reuse nutrients. Today’s chicken farmers compost and reuse chicken litter, as well as store, cover and document every pound of litter before it leaves their farms. Many environmental groups have approached
the challenge of nutrient reduction in a spirit of collaboration with farmers. Others, like the Environmental Integrity Project, seem interested only in portraying chicken farmers as villains. Determined to overstate chicken farmers’ impact on water quality, they ignore the fact that just 14% of the nitrogen delivered to Delmarva’s tidal areas of the Bay comes from poultry litter, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. That’s less than half of what comes from commercial fertilizer. Still, EIP produced a report this past fall that demonized chicken growers and misinterpreted Maryland’s environmental regulations — and they got the misleading headlines they wanted.
A Delmarva without farms may seem impossible, but it’s happened before. In the middle of the 20th century, Long Island, NY, was a major potato producer. But suburban sprawl ate up farmland and transformed that region, all but erasing its agricultural character and value. Few would wish that fate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, least of all the farmers who are strongly committed to feeding us while protecting the Chesapeake Bay.
Holly Porter is Executive Director of the Delmarva Chicken Association.