Up Close and Personal with Where Breakfast Comes From

By Kelly Shenk and Matt Johnston


PennAg Industries Association contacted me as soon as I became EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor and offered me the chance to get out in the field to visit three farms.  I assembled a team predominantly comprised of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Modelers to learn first-hand from farmers about their success and challenges of growing food in a safe, humane, and environmentally sound manner.  PennAg provided an experience that I know we’ll all take with us in our careers and personal lives, as demonstrated by Matt Johnston in this blog.

Learning from farmers on the PennAg farm tour

It is all too easy to forget where our food comes from.  Every Saturday as a young boy I awoke to the smells of bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen.  By the time I got to the table, my mother had already set my place with two eggs sunny side up, two pieces of extra crispy bacon, a piece of toast and a glass of milk.  It’s a menu familiar to many of us and served weekend after weekend in homes across America.

Never once did I stop to think about how my breakfast got there.  Never once did I consider the animal production side of the equation – the side that includes thousands of workers, millions of animals, and tons of feed and manure.  Last week while on a tour of farms with colleagues, I was reminded of the other side of that equation in very personal ways.

The first stop on our tour was an egg layer facility. Conveyer belts criss-crossed a three-story tall warehouse seamlessly transporting eggs to an adjacent packing facility from the millions of hens that were stacked in cages and spread out over an area larger than a football field.  All the while, another set of belts sent the byproduct of our food production in the opposite direction, depositing the poultry litter in two-to-three story high piles.  When confronted with mounds of litter taller than your house, you begin to realize the inevitable byproducts of our Saturday morning meals.

This lesson was repeated at a nursery pig raising facility, where I jumped at the opportunity to hold an adorable young pig when the tour leader offered.  Unfortunately, the pig did not share my excitement and promptly announced its disgust by soiling my clothing with manure.  All the while, under my feet was a concrete holding tank full of the same viscous substance ready to be pumped out and transported to a nearby field.

Visiting the pigs on the PennAg farm tour

Our last stop was a small dairy.  There were no large holding tanks or conveyor belts constructing piles.  Instead, there was a single farmer with a few small pieces of equipment, a small barnyard, and a few adjacent fields.  Without the resources to stack or store manure, the farmer can only do one thing with it – spread it.  This is the way farmers have farmed for hundreds of years.

Whether the manure is stacked, buried, or spread, it is real.  What is now clear to me is that it is not the devil.  It’s a necessary byproduct of our society’s growing consumption of animal products.  However, like all byproducts of production, it can be harmful in high doses.

Yet we have the tools to lessen its impact.  We can spread manure according to nutrient management plan recommendations.  We can plant grasses and trees along waterways to intercept nutrients.  And we can work with farmers to make proper storage and handling equipment available.

After all, the manure is not going away, and I’m not going to stop eating eggs and bacon with my glass of milk on Saturday morning.

Learning from Farmers on the PennAg farm tour

About the Authors: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor.  Matt Johnston is a Nonpoint Source Data Analyst with the Chesapeake Bay Program.

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