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Litter fuels debate among southeastern W.Va. farmers, poultry company

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dr. John R. Tomlinson Jr., a veterinarian at Fairlea Animal Hospital in Lewisburg, is fighting for the right of local farmers to use fertilizers made from sanitized litter from chickens and other animals.

Aviagen, a "primary poultry breeding" company headquartered in Huntsville, Ala., wants to ban the use of those fertilizers within three miles of its farms in West Virginia.

Tomlinson runs a 900-acre farm that raises about 1,000 feeder cattle annually.

"We are trying to make this issue public knowledge, so people can understand this could have a huge impact on their costs. For my farm, it saved me $69,000 last year."

The alternative -- petroleum-based fertilizer -- costs substantially more than the litter-based fertilizer.

The state Department of Agriculture has extended the deadline for public comments until Aug. 22 on its "proposed emergency rule that would limit land application of poultry and swine litter within three miles of primary poultry breeder operations, unless the litter has been certified by the State Veterinarian as disease-free."

Tomlinson said the Department of Agriculture's new rule "would give us no other alternative but to use petroleum-based fertilizers. We would have to use traditional commercial fertilizers, not poultry-litter fertilizers."

The Agriculture Department will hold two hearings about its proposed rule at its offices at the Moorefield Agriculture Complex on Aug. 20 and at the Greenbrier County Courthouse on Aug. 21. Both meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

"We are going to go to those public forums in Moorefield and Lewisburg. But I don't think they will add up to much," Tomlinson said.

On its website, the WVDA states, "Primary breeder farms [like those operated by Aviagen] adhere to strict biosecurity programs to prevent introduction of diseases, such as salmonella, mycoplasmas and avian influenza, which can be spread through poultry and swine litter.

"Primary breeders maintain and expand pure bloodlines, and develop crossbred lines," the WVDA states.

(The agency's proposed rule can be read at: http://apps.sos.wv.gov/adlaw/csr/ruleview.aspx?document8754.)

Bob Edson, Aviagen's vice president of operations, was traveling and not available for an interview Friday. In West Virginia, Aviagen employs 130 people and does $40 million in business annually.

In June, Edson told The Associated Press that untested and unregulated chicken litter was used in fields near his company's farms in West Virginia on at least one occasion.

"Long term, this will be a disaster for us," Edson told state legislators. If Aviagan's farming operations are not disease-free, he added, it could be a "business-ending proposition."

Edson said his company is particularly concerned about avian influenza.

The Agriculture Department's proposed "emergency rule" would restrict the use of poultry-litter fertilizers from 18,000 acres around each Aviagen farm.

"Those restrictions are so strict that they would eliminate the possibility of being able to utilize this fertilizer," Tomlinson said.

"Currently, the cost of poultry litter is 30 percent of the cost of petroleum-based fertilizers and it is completely organic. This is a terrific product, as our industry tries to leave its dependencies on petroleum-based and chemical-based products. <t40>...<t$>

"It brings profound savings for farmers in Greenbrier and Monroe counties," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson recently told state legislators, "Poultry litter is a hostile environment for persistence of pathogens. It is typically dry, heats very quickly and generates ammonia gas.

"Deep stacking poultry litter is [a] commonly recommended way to reduce bacterial population."

Tomlinson said he and his fellow farmers routinely test for salmonella and avian influenza. "We can ensure that our farms are clean."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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