Manure is a fact of life on a farm. It’s also a natural fertilizer that helps farmers grow their crops. But when spreading manure causes the land to become oversaturated with nutrients, these nutrients can enter local waterways. True enough, nitrogen and phosphorus running off from farms are key pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, contributing to dead zones that are harmful for aquatic life and public health.

Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region have made progress in reducing nutrient runoff and should be commended for that. But state programs continue to be crucial as well. Here in Maryland, one key part of the solution to help meet our clean water goals is the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Manure Transport Program.

The concept of the program is simple: take the manure from farms that cannot handle all the manure they produce and transport it to farms that can, or to alternative use facilities. The program provides grants to help poultry, dairy and other animal producers in Maryland transport excess manure off their farms.

The Manure Transport Program does most of its work on the Eastern Shore, thanks to its heavy emphasis on poultry production. An analysis by Fair Farms and the Center for Progressive Reform shows that by a large margin, Wicomico County has the highest number of manure transport transactions, followed by Somerset and Worcester counties. These three counties of the Lower Shore account for nearly 90 percent of all manure transport transactions recorded by the state.

But how much manure from poultry farms is actually being moved around, and what difference is it making? The amount varies significantly from year to year, but on average the program transports 40,000 tons of poultry litter per year, and about 55,000 tons per year in the last two years. While estimates also vary of how much manure is produced in the state each year, and how much can be considered “excess,” MDA reported a total of 383,949 tons of manure produced in 2015. Based on this estimate, the program handles roughly 15 percent of all manure collected in Maryland, and about 20 percent of all “excess” manure.

With the midpoint assessment of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup occurring this year, we must take stock of where we are and what more must be done in order to restore local waterways and the Bay to full health. The Manure Transport Program is a key component of this. If we could get more of the manure that’s running off into our waterways off of those farms, it would go a long way towards relieving pressure on those waterways, especially on the Lower Shore. And it’s not like the manure has no place to go – many farm fields in the state are not oversaturated with manure and alternative use projects continue to be discussed as potentially viable solutions as well.

More can be done to help the Manure Transport Program achieve its full potential. As we look for ways to reduce pollution to achieve our 2025 Bay cleanup goals, let’s not forget that.

-Katlyn Clark, legal fellow for Fair Farms

Fair Farms is a growing movement of over 20,000 Marylanders of all stripes working together for a new food system – one that is fair to farmers, invests in homegrown healthy food, and restores our waterways instead of polluting them. Learn more about the movement at fairfarms.org.