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Virginia Mennonite Farmers Work To Protect Chesapeake Bay

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The waste produced by these chickens isn't being used on fields, sparing the Chesapeake Bay from phosphorous-rich runoff.
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The waste produced by these chickens isn't being used on fields, sparing the Chesapeake Bay from phosphorous-rich runoff.

States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are now required to limit the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that flows into rivers and streams. Farmers must change the way they grow crops and raise animals, prompting protest from the Farm Bureau Federation. But in Virginia, hundreds of farmers are embracing the change.

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—approximately 76,000—are fed, watered and produce waste. A lot of it.

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," says the farmer.

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," he says.

So instead of using chicken waste on his field, he's selling it for $10 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—and something he can get free. 

He's also fencing his land so grazing animals don't relieve themselves in streams, and protecting rain water by running a pipe from the roofs of farm buildings directly to the stream—keeping it away from areas where cow pies are plentiful.

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