The Chesapeake Bay is the largest freshwater estuary in the United States. It lies just off the Atlantic Ocean, and is surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia, with Pennsylvania just to the north. The Bay’s watershed extends over 65,000 sq. miles, including Washington, D.C. and sections of six states – in addition to the above, New York, Delaware and West Virginia.

While the bay is probably most familiar to residents of the Eastern United States, it is famous all over the United States, and is best-known for its excellent seafood. For more than 200 years, ever since America’s founding, fish and shellfish have been taken from the bay by local “watermen .” Their catch includes oysters, striped bass (rockfish), clams and most famously, blue crabs.

The famous oyster harvests led to the development of the Maryland skipjack, the only working boat still used in the United States under sail power. But the oyster industry has been devastated. And while there were once 6,000 watermen, now only 500 struggle to make a living on the bay.

Living about an hour north of the Chesapeake Bay, I’ve visited the bay many times, to fish, to hike and explore some of the historical towns lining the water. But the bay is not what it used to be. Runoff from urban areas, and agricultural industry, including farms, poultry, meat and food processors, have created marine dead zones, where there is so little oxygen in the water it cannot support life, resulting in massive kills of fish and shellfish.

Unfortunately, most of the blame has fallen unfairly on agriculture. Lancaster County, Pa., where I live, is a major agricultural area. It represents the most productive non-irrigated farmland in the United States, a major center of poultry growing and processing, and is dotted with meat and poultry plants. The Delmarva region (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) is one of the largest poultrygrowing and processing regions in the country, and poultry operations in the region are blamed for causing bay pollution. The agriculture industry in Lancaster County is blamed for dumping nitrogen, phosphorus and other contaminants into the Susquehanna River.

Federal, state and local governments and nonprofit groups have worked to clean up the bay. But the Obama Administration believes not enough is being done. President Obama issued an executive order to restore and protect the bay. This order was followed by a directive from the Environmental Protection Agency telling states how to regulate agriculture, housing developments and others deemed responsible for the bay pollution. In the view of Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, these actions amount to a federal takeover of cleaning up and managing the bay. Formal public comment on one of the EPA plan ends this month, and a final strategy will be published by the agency in May. There will be a final draft of other regulations published this October. Then a two-year time period will start in 2011, and goals will have to be met by agriculture and land developers.

But according to James Adams, president of Wenger Feeds, a poultry feed company also owning 4 million chickens in Lancaster County, agriculture is already doing a lot to help clean up the bay under new Total Maximum Daily Load rules limiting what can be discharged into rivers and other streams feeding the bay.

Adams tells Meat&Poultry large-scale animal agriculture or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for many years have implemented nutrient-management plans. Many farms and processing operations have incorporated Best Management Practices not accounted for in the bay cleanup model. At a recent EPA “listening session,” Rich Batiuk, an agency official, said agriculture industries have made progress, “but not enough.” The NCC’s Lobb says, “Perdue Farms, gets poultry litter and recycles it. If EPA bans the use of chicken litter on farms, the farmers will use chemical fertilizer instead, which won’t help. Much of the problem is highly-developed residential areas around the bay, with 14 million people living in the region, using more than 400 major sewage systems. The fact is, farms produce less pollution than golf courses and housing developments.”

“But unfortunately, you have environmental groups saying agriculture is the No. 1 polluter,” Adams says.
One example of outstanding work in cooperation with the government and private groups working on the bay is Perdue. The company developed the Clean Bays Initiative, an historic agreement between the company and the EPA to protect the Chesapeake Bay and the region’s coastal bays in the areas where it operates.

Unfortunately, fewer Americans work in agriculture, by some estimates under two percent. This makes American agriculture an easy target. •

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.