Michelle and Paul Chesnik are impassioned poultry farmers. They have eight houses on two adjacent pieces of land in Wicomico County, Md. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, on the Delmarva Peninsula. Like many of their fellow farmers, they are facing big changes up ahead, and they’ve decided to do something about it.
The recent implementation of the PMT (phosphorous management tool) restricts the spreading of poultry litter based on the FIV (Fertility Index Value) of the soil. Michelle says it’s anticipated there will be an excess of at least 228,000 tons of poultry litter annually. At least for the short term, Governor Larry Hogan has implement regulatory changes to allow an implementation phase over five to seven years.
“It’s been a bloody battle that I’ve been involved in since 2013, when the legislature tried to push through regulation under an emergency hearing to automatically stop the spread of poultry litter, without a clue as to not only the financial detriment, but also the environmental detriment it would have caused,” she says. “The previous Governor O’Malley’s plan was to stockpile it in undisclosed locations. And the previous Secretary of Agriculture thought it could be used to fertilize the forests in the state parks. Another plan was to have large storage facilities in (again) undisclosed locations until an alternative use could be found.
Looking for answers
The Chesnik farms produce approximately 800 to 1,000 tons of litter each year and like approximately 75 percent of the farms in the area, are considered a “No Land” operation with 27 acres.
“This means that we do not have the land to spread it on and, per our CAFO permits, cannot spread it. We use a small portion to compost our farm mortality, and the rest of the litter is dependent on the Maryland Manure transport program, which is done through a manure broker such as Ellis Farms. Some farmers depend on neighboring farms,” Michelle explains.
This year alone, in the three lower counties on the shore – Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester – because of the implementation of phosphorus risk restrictions, any crop soils that have over a 500 phosphorus Fertility Index Value will not be able to utilize litter, according to Michelle.
“That’s why I’ve been looking for a long time to find alternative technology that would keep the industry viable,” she says. “Not just for my farm, but something that we could do into these densely populated poultry areas on the Delmarva Peninsula.”
The Chesniks saw all types of technology during their search, much of it great, but not ideal for their situations. One system Michelle recalls looked promising. The hitch? All the farms on the peninsula would have to change their bedding from wood to straw.
“We use finely ground pine shavings or sawdust for bedding. We don’t produce much straw around here. Our poultry litter is a combination of manure and shavings, and the moisture content of that is normally around 30 to 35 percent, so whatever system you use is going to have to be able to accept that.”
Luckily, they ran into a small Renewable Oil International (ROI) demonstration. The Maryland company uses a pyrolysis technology different from others. The litter is baked in a thermal processing unit under high heat in air-less containers, reducing the volume by 50 to 60 percent. What remains are three products:
- bio oil, which can be used as an asphalt extender or fuel additive;
- bio char, a charcoal-like product that can improve compost;
- and a synthetic gas
“We process the biomass in less than a second and thermally break it down – vaporize it,” explains Keith Cowin, chief operating officer of ROI. “It doesn’t combust because it’s in a non-oxidizing environment. Then we take that vapor and re-condense it in less than two seconds into about 40 percent bio oil and about 45 percent bio char. A non-condensable gas comes off, and that’s the third product. That gas is combustible and we use that to heat up our process.”
Conversations began between ROI and the Chesniks. Both parties could see the benefits of such technology in the area and that led to a pilot project on the Chesnik’s farm.
To get funds to build the pilot, ROI applied for a state grant with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. In August 2015, ROI was awarded a $1.2 million grant to get the project underway.
Louise Lawrence, resource conservation chief for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, heads up the grant program and is excited to see the pilot up and running. She’s also looking forward to seeing the results.
“It’s a two-year contract, anticipating it will take one year to construct,” she says. “Once it’s operational we look at both the efficiency of the technology, and the results in terms of manure management.
“We also subcontract the Environmental Finance Center to look at our projects and do an economic analysis in a couple veins,” she adds. “One will be to look at, with the state subsidizing the construction of these technologies, what the cost benefit is. Then they will look at what a cost benefit would be if a farmer had to look for outside funding sources, the loans, what the payback period might be, if they would save money on fertilizer inputs or transport inputs if they’re not using the fertilizer and having to haul it some place. And they will look at all the different business components to see how that changes the economics and whether in the end it would pan out for other operations to adopt it on their own.”
Bigger things ahead
Construction will begin soon at the Chesnik farm and, if all goes well, there will be bigger construction ahead.
“The business plan is to move forward with processing units that will handle maybe 30 to 50 farms as opposed to one farm and ROI would have them centrally located in the high density markets,” Keith says.
And although ROI technology can process any carbon-rich material, the company wants to focus on a big need as opposed to being too generalized.
“Right now in the Eastern Shore, there’s a specific need – an enormous amount of biomass sitting there that they really don’t have answers for right now. This gives us a huge opportunity to move in and help convert that into other products.”
One of the benefits of ROI’s technology is that it creates several products with a variety of end users, which ROI is currently developing.
Bio char – Keith says 50 percent of the carbon that’s in chicken litter comes out in bio char, “and that [bio char] is an excellent way of sequestering carbon, because now you’re not throwing it up in the atmosphere; you have carbon in a form you can use.”
The bio char is also absorbent and works well as a fertilizer or a soil amendment for garden centers and landscapers.
Bio oil – The heavy bio oil resulting from the process is used by asphalt manufacturer (in fact one is already on line to take the bio oil from the Chesnik farm.
“The light end we’re actually separating and selling as chemicals,” Keith says. “There are about five or six really valuable ones that we’re pulling off and the balance of the material can be refined back into fuel.
“What we’re trying to do with this pilot is to develop those markets even further and develop contracts and expand on the project of developing a unit that will handle a lot greater volume of the litter and take care of a bigger volume of the excess litter than one farm.”
Learning and profits
Construction will begin soon, with the collaborative efforts of ROI MD technology, engineering firm KCI, the Chesniks, poultry litter broker Ray Ellis, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Once completed, all eyes will be on Chesnik’s farm because it will be a learning tool for many.
The Chesnik farm is a conservation farm – part of the Farm Stewardship Certification and Assessment Program (FSCAP).
“My offer to the Maryland Department of Agriculture was to basically keep this unit up here as a learning tool,” says Michelle. “If it works, universities and environmental groups and such can come in and see what we do, how we do it, and learn and see what it does. I think it’s important that both communities – environmental and agriculture – have a meeting place.”
Louise Lawrence says the Maryland Department of Agriculture would like to see this as a tool for other farmers.
“We don’t believe there’s a silver bullet,” she says. “Manure management, because animal production is somewhat concentrated in this country, is a big deal. There is a lot of manure generated and we need to have a lot of opportunities available to help farmers manage it in a way that doesn’t treat it as a waste. If it can’t be used for fertilizer, there needs to be viable ways to use it for other things. We think it’s important to pursue those ways. It could be that there’s a large regional thing, or it could be there’s some smaller farm scale things that work.
“Our view is that it’ll probably be a combination of many of those scales and many technologies. One size does not fit all. It does play into some of the ingenuity of the farm community to adapt to their particular needs or their farm operation, the different things that are out there. So we hope to offer them a menu of things that they can look at, and they can see how well they work and be informed from thereon.”
Pay its own way
But this pilot project is definitely all business.
“We’re doing it as a joint venture with ROI,” Michelle says. “The real hope with this is that there will be a market for the bio char and there will be some income. There has to be some kind of income stream from this in order to put these things up and have them functional on a large scale. You can’t just depend on the state to pay to run them or have a large fee to the growers to run them, that’s why the income stream will be critical.”