College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Environmental Science & Technology

Not just chicken poop

Three anaerobic digesters designed to convert poultry waste into methane gas that is usable as an alternative energy source sit on Jason Lambertson’s farm in Pocomoke City. The digesters are part of a pilot program that will launch this year.
Image Credit: 
CNS PHOTO/JAMES LEVIN

POCOMOKE CITY — On an overcast Friday morning, Jason Lambertson goes through one door, then another, and peers across a long, warm, dusky room at the 80,000 teenagers whose poop the state expects him to clean up.

Granted, the teenagers are young chickens, owned and cared for on Millennium Farms for the Tyson Food Co. And as the sulfuric aroma of their waste rises out of the chicken house, Lambertson said he is determined to make the birds’ manure usable on his fields despite new state regulations that limit the practice.

“There’s no cost in the manure itself to us, but it’s a huge liability if we can’t use it on the fields,” Lambertson said. “There’s some transportation programs, but the problem is they transport it up to Pennsylvania, they use it up there — where’s it end up? Right back down here in the Bay.”

In Pocomoke City, Lambertson’s farm is expected to show how anaerobic digesters can provide a renewable alternative energy source on the Eastern Shore and solve the Chesapeake Bay’s agricultural nutrient pollution problem from its very source — chicken waste.

“For me, and my son (who) is going to farm — I already know that’s what he wants to do — and for the long term for our families, we want to make sure that the agricultural community stays viable, and that’s why this even makes more sense for us,” he said.

Located in Worcester County — ranked second in the state and 13th in the country in 2012 for its poultry livestock production — Millennium Farms’ 2014 waste-to-energy pilot program will begin breaking down nutrient-rich poultry manure this fall through three anaerobic digesters.

As the tall, thick-concrete towers heat up to 95 degrees, bacteria inside the chicken poop will decompose the waste, in the process releasing methane gas. The collected biogas will provide enough energy to power the digesters and generate electricity for the 50-acre farm, Lambertson explained.

Meanwhile, the digesters’ liquid byproduct makes it easier to remove dissolved nutrients from the manure before it is then applied on fields as a natural fertilizer for his soybeans, corn and wheat, said Lambertson, a third-generation chicken and grain farmer.

“This plant would be able to extract the phosphorus out in a large quantity and then continue to let people use the manure as a good, healthy fertilizer for the Bay,” Lambertson said. “We want — farmers and grain farmers alike — to still use this resource in some fashion. We do not want to see us have the burden to do something else with that manure.”

Agriculture remains the largest industry and largest single land-use in Maryland, but it is also the largest contributor of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

On April 3, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan published updated Phosphorus Management Tool regulations in the Maryland Register that would require farmers to declare strict phosphorus application controls on the fertilizer they apply to their fields by 2017.

The previous administration would have required farmers to establish permanent controls by 2021, but Hogan’s new regulations would allow them an extra year to meet the standards.

Rather than transporting the phosphorus-rich soils away from the Eastern Shore, though, the pilot program offers a way to extract just the nutrients from the shore’s chicken manure and send them to farms that need the extra nutrients for better crop growth, said Stephanie Lansing, a University of Maryland professor and anaerobic digestion expert. Plus, burning the waste has the added benefit of eliminating the acrid poultry poop smell, she said.

“We’re creating an alternative to help manage the phosphorus saturation that affects the Eastern Shore,” Lansing said. “You’re producing energy plus creating a phosphorus product that can be exported.”

This poultry waste anaerobic digester is one of five in the United States. If successful, it could lead to community digesters built along the Eastern Shore that would generate energy from animal manure, reduce on-farm waste streams and repurpose manure as marketable fertilizer, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Lansing and her group of graduate and undergraduate students work with Lambertson’s farm through the university’s Maryland Industrial Partnerships program, which links professors with industries and provides research funds to help a business move forward, she said.

Anna Kulow, an environmental science and technology graduate student at the University of Maryland and member of Lansing’s research team, said if successful, the pilot program will significantly reduce nutrient pollution from Eastern Shore farms.

Poultry farming’s longstanding history on Maryland’s Eastern Shore means that its soil is highly saturated in nutrients from years of farmers using their manure to fertilize their fields, Kulow said, and applying more phosphorus and nitrogen to the nutrient-rich fields now inevitably causes excess nutrients to flow into the Bay.

“You have a lot of chemical compounds that are pollutants, but the main cause of decline in ecosystem health is nutrient pollution, particularly from agriculture,” Kulow said. “The pilot system is projected to remove more than 18 tons of phosphorus a year from poultry litter, so that would prevent that much phosphorus from being applied to land each year.”

While he doesn’t know the total costs yet, Lambertson said the anaerobic digesters are funded privately by Planet Found Energy Development LLC investors.

The nutrient-capture portion of the project received a $676,144.47 service contract from the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Animal Waste Technology Fund in August 2014. Lambertson said that the contract is based on performance, so he will not receive the money for the nutrient-capture program until the project reaches determined milestones.

The fund awarded about $2 million to projects like Lambertson’s in the 2014 fiscal year, and $3 million is available in the 2015 fiscal year — which ends June 30 — for innovative manure management technologies, said Julianne A. Oberg, communications director for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Hogan’s administration also established the Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative, a program aimed to evaluate the economic impact of the phosphorus regulations on farmers. The initiative includes funding for the Animal Waste Technology Fund to offset costs of environmental improvement plans.

The Animal Waste Technology Fund will have $2.5 million available for new projects in the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

For Lambertson, the pilot project will significantly reduce the excess nutrient problem, decrease his electricity bill and keep his family farming on the Eastern Shore.

“The more that we do to be progressive, to make sure that we do what’s right, that we provide solutions to the environmental problems — the agriculture side — I think that is a really big plus, that we’re not always looked at as the one that’s causing it,” Lambertson said. “The main goal here is to show a solution, and that it can be done agriculturally.”

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