The Chesapeake Bay watershed spans six states and the District of Columbia. Within this watershed are several large cities, including Cooperstown, N.Y.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Baltimore, Md.; Washington, D.C.; and Norfolk, Richmond and Charlottesville, and the bay supports more than 2,700 species of plants and animals.
Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay, and it is for that reason that nearly 3 years ago, the federal government put states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed on a diet - imposing limits on the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that can flow into their rivers and streams.
To comply, farmers in six states must change the way they grow crops and raise animals - a fact that’s prompted angry words from the Farm Bureau Federation.
Like the chickens they raise, Mennonite farmers stick together - shunning the spotlight on any one person, so the man you’re about to hear doesn’t want us to use his name - but he’s proud of his poultry operation - a massive barn where thousands of fluffy white birds are fed and watered.
“Approximately 76,000. Wow! A lot of chickens. Yes, it’s quite a lot of chickens. And a lot of chicken waste? True, a lot of chicken waste.”
Historically, farmers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley have put chicken litter on their fields, but scientists have recently explained that this form of fertilizer is not a good match for the soil, because it contains too much phosphorous.
“A plant can utilize what it needs, and lets the rest remain, and the water carries it away.”
From a stream on this farm, it would flow into the James River and on to the Chesapeake Bay, where it would cause algae blooms which, in turn, suck oxygen out of the water, creating dead zones where no fish can live. Our farmer feels responsible and hates to see that happen.
“All of us are only here as stewards, and we are expected to care for environment by the creator himself.”
So instead of using chicken waste on his field, he’s selling it for ten dollars a ton to farmers a few hundred miles west - where the soil is deficient in phosphorous. For his own fields, he’ll rely on cow manure - a better chemical match for local land.
“Because the cow manure is much more difficult to transport economically, and there is a surplus of that in the area, we can acquire that without purchase. So you get it free! Yes.”
What’s more, trucks used to transport chicken waste west are also used to haul corn from an area where it’s relatively cheap to a region where it costs more, so - again - the Mennonite farmers figure they’re coming out ahead.
They’re also fencing their land so grazing animals don’t relieve themselves in streams. And they’re protecting the quality of rain water by keeping some of it away from areas where cow pies are plentiful.
“To route the rainwater from the roof of livestock confinement buildings directly to the stream in a pipe, rather than allowing it to flow across a cattle loafing lot and flush the nutrients into the stream.”
While the Farm Bureau Federation has attacked the Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly overstepping its authority, the Mennonites are grateful to environmental scientists who help them live in harmony with their land and water.