The Environmental Protection Agency threw down the gauntlet this week for farmers, including poultry producers, in the six states that are included within the Chesapeake Bay watershed: cut down on pollution or else. According to EPA, agriculture is responsible for 38 percent of the nitrogen, 45 percent of the phosphorus and 60 percent of the sediment now accumulating in the bay. The agency’s new get-tough policy, which is aimed directly at how the states regulate agriculture and other contributors to Chesapeake Bay pollution, could profoundly impact poultry production in three of the poultry industry’s historic regions: the Delmarva peninsula, the Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and southeastern Pennsylvania.

"We’re interpreting it as a federal crackdown," Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told "EPA is going to saddle up and ride herd on the states. They have basically got a gun pointed at the head of the states and are saying, ‘Don’t make us pull the trigger.’" He cautioned that "nothing will change immediately – but they’ve laid out their roadmap. There’s no question which direction they’re going."

Under the EPA plan, which is still in draft stage though it was announced this week, farms with livestock would all require permitting under CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) rules. Discharge would be redefined to include even feathers blown out of poultry barns by fans – a redefinition that would apply to virtually all poultry barns, noted Lobb. In terms of poultry litter use, "this is going to fall heavily on crop farmers and on anyone else who uses poultry litter as fertilizer or for other uses," he said.

The federal government is attempting to speed up clean-up of the bay, which is a vital seafood and shellfish resource, after decades of efforts by states that EPA has deemed were less than successful. In announcing her agency’s new aggressiveness on Chesapeake Bay regulation, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said this week: "People don’t believe there are going to be consequences if they don't follow" some pollution rules now. She also said that the Chesapeake Bay approach could be taken by EPA in other major watersheds. "We want to make this a laboratory to show that it can be done," she said.

In addition to agriculture, the EPA will target storm run-off and sewage treatment facilities, of which there are approximately 400 of major size along the shores of the Bay. But Lobb told there’s no question agriculture has been singled out. "It’s got a big target on its back," he said. "But the big question is, What if you do all this stuff and the bay doesn’t improve? Are they focusing on agriculture because they’ve already got a regulatory framework in place for agriculture?"

He said NCC has not yet formulated an official response to the EPA proposal and will be talking to NCC’s members, especially those, such as Perdue, that operate in the regions that would be impacted the most by EPA’s plan, to devise a strategy for moving forward. "I think of this as a shrinking box," he said. "They’ve put agriculture in a box and it shrinks a little more every year."