RHODESDALE, Md. (AP) — Bob Murphy's Double Trouble Farms may be the most cutting-edge poultry operation on the Eastern Shore right now.
But the significance of the farm in Rhodesdale, Maryland, is not the poultry itself. It's the technology used to repurpose chicken manure.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture and Irish agri-tech company Biomass Heating Solutions Limited, or BHSL, have committed nearly $3 million toward manure-to-energy technology that they hope will significantly reduce the impact of Murphy's chickens — and perhaps one day all Eastern Shore poultry — on the Chesapeake Bay.
"Our main objective is bird enhancement," BHSL project engineer James O'Sullivan told the University of Maryland's Capital News Service. "We want to completely diminish ammonium (from Murphy's chickens to the bay). We want to reduce humidity (in the chicken houses) and have a drier atmosphere for the birds, hence drier manure."
The project was completed and went online in December. While O'Sullivan oversees the equipment on the farm, BHSL runs it off-site.
"The whole system is fully automated," O'Sullivan said. "It is controlled by our remote operations team in Ireland."
The farm houses more than 160,000 chickens — a large number, no question — but a fraction of the 300 million "broilers," or chickens bred specifically for meat production, that the USDA says the state produces annually.
O'Sullivan says the chickens on Murphy's farm can produce as much as 10 tons of manure a day. When left on the ground, the manure finds its way into local waterways and eventually the Chesapeake Bay
The phosphorus and nitrogen in livestock manure are essential to healthy ecosystems, according to a 2004 report released by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In excess, however, these natural plant nutrients cause "explosive" growth in algae and other underwater plants, which stifle other forms of life in the bay.
BHSL utilizes a process called fluidized bed combustion, which works by heating a bed of sand inside a fuel combustion chamber until bubbling at 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Once this level is reached, manure is fed into the chamber and the temperature is raised to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. This process produces hot gases, which in turn are used to boil water that ultimately heats the chicken houses.
Not only does the process heat the chicken houses with clean, renewable energy, it keeps the manure off the ground and out of the waterways.
Livestock manure has long been one of the sources of bay pollution that the state Department of Agriculture seeks to diminish, but implementing environmentally friendly policies while preserving industries vital to local economies has been difficult.
"We can't lose poultry on the Eastern Shore," Murphy said. "People are looking for ways to save it, and that's my goal."
Murphy sees this technology, which his farm and BHSL began working on three years ago, as a means to clean the bay while preserving a vital economy.
"Right now we're transporting manure (to other nearby farms for fertilizer)," Murphy said. "But eventually those fields, which didn't have manure before, will get caught up and experience the same problem."
"Somewhere along the line, we have to get rid of this manure," Murphy added. "If you can burn eight to 10 (tons) a day, that's manure that doesn't go on the fields."
Murphy says he hasn't heard any opposition to the project locally, and others in the poultry industry have met the project with approval.
"The economy around here is driven by chicken farms," said Bruce Boney, a former IT contractor for Perdue Farms. "If they're trying to make an effort toward cleaner water, I think it's positive work."
O'Sullivan is quick to note that BHSL is not bringing technology to the United States that doesn't have a track record. In fact, the company first implemented their fluidized bed combustion chamber units in the United Kingdom in 2003, and today run eight different units on six different farms there.
One of the main byproducts of the process is fly ash, and O'Sullivan says BHSL is determining a market for it. Specifically, BHSL is in talks with composting and phosphorus leaching companies, he said. Fly ash's value comes from its phosphorus, potassium and carbon content.
If the project goes well, O'Sullivan said, there are plans to bring the technology to nearby Bellview Farms, another poultry farm Murphy owns. Bellview houses twice as many chickens as Double Trouble Farms.
Manure-to-energy technology has the potential to reshape how farms handle excess manure not only in Maryland, but the rest of the country, especially the other bay-watershed states.
"Maryland is literally creating the blueprint (for dealing with excess manure in waterways)," Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder said last month.
Maryland's commitment toward the project, $970,000, comes from the Department of Agriculture's Animal Waste Technology Fund. Grants from the fund are awarded based on an applicant's ability to meet a variety of requirements, according to the department's Office of Resource Conservation program manager Louise Lawrence.
"(We run) a competitive (application process) annually. Proposals are evaluated based on responses to requirements," Lawrence said. "We have approved funding for six projects to date. These projects vary in cost from $300,000 to $1.4 million."
Other projects include:
--$150,790 to Green Mountain Technologies Inc. to repurpose horse manure at Days End Farm in Woodbine.
--$237,520 to Green Mountain Technologies Inc. to repurpose dairy cow manure at Iager Farms in Frederick County.
--$350,302 to Veteran Compost and O2 Compost to repurpose horse manure in Davidsonville.
--$676,144 to Planet Found Energy Development to repurpose poultry manure in Berlin.
--$1.4 million to CleanBay Renewables to construct and operate an energy-to-manure plant that will benefit farms in Somerset County.
Gov. Larry Hogan, Bartenfelder, and individuals from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Perdue Farms, and the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are among a list of guests who are scheduled to visit Double Trouble Farms on Monday.