New Directions topics
Project looks at plant as pond cleaner, livestock feed
By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
POCOMOKE CITY, Md. — With so much attention on cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, people from all walks of life have looked at different ways to improve water quality.
Larry Ward, who owns a tree service business and raises about 100 acres of hay in Somerset County, is one of those people.
Ward said he’s been trying to get aquatic plants to grow in the ponds and drainage ditches on his farm for years, but to no avail. The nutrients from runoff in the summer was too much for the plants, he said, which also stifled aquatic animals in the water.
In his search for a plant that would grow in the water, Ward came across three: Water hyacinth, water lettuce and parrotfeather, and planted some for the first time last year in a pond on the farm. This year, with the help of a $8,687 grant from the Northeast Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, he’s focusing on the water hyacinth, measuring its growth and testing the water for nutrient removal.
“The goal is to extract the nitrogen out of the ditch water and turn it into a viable product, because there’s a lot of it moving through here,” Ward said.
The viable product, Ward hopes, is in using the harvested plants as an animal feed.
“Pigs love the water hyacinth. They eat it all,” he said.
Ward said water hyacinth is commonly used in southern Florida to keep ponds clean. It’s a tropical plant, native to South America and considered invasive in the Mid-Atlantic but not able to survive the winter and would therefore need to be replanted every year.
Ward said last year he planted a combination of water hyacinth and parrotfeather in his pond and it spread quickly in the summer’s heat.
“When it gets hot that stuff goes crazy,” Ward said. “Me, I’m amazed at it. It has a root system that is so fibrous. It’s a real biofilter.”
The plant’s dense root mat absorbs nutrients directly from the water and it also has another type of root system that can attach to soil at the edge of ponds or ditches.
Ward said as the plants grew last year, aquatic wildlife from crawfish to snakes to frogs became more prevalent as well.
This year he put in water hyacinth specifically for the SARE grant to study its growth and nutrient removal, and with 400 other plants of water hyacinth and parrotfeather in a different pond. He said he thinks the parrotfeather is actually better at removing nitrogen from the water but the water hyacinth is more palatable as a livestock feed.
Though he has only begun to collect data on the plants, Ward said he would like to see more people try them.
“Personally, I’d like to see some in every farm ditch that goes into the Bay. (These projects) could be done all over the place. They don’t have to be really wide, just have some length to it.”
Somerset County Extension Ag Agent Richard Nottingham is serving as Ward’s technical advisor for the grant work and will be reviewing the research data from the project.
“He came to me about a year ago with the idea,” Nottingham said of Ward. “I though it had merit. It’s his idea, his project.”
Nottingham said he gets a lot of ideas pitched to him for research projects on what should be done about this or that.
“They’re really not so great,” he said, but with Ward and the water hyacinth, “the more he talked about them, the more I was interested.”
Nottingham added there is a need for some type of method to clean ponds and ditch water on the Lower Shore and the water hyacinth is worth looking at as much as any other idea.
“The ponds around here just get to be such a mess in the summer because of blooms of algae. The amount of growth that it gets in one year’s time is staggering,” Nottingham said about the water hyacinth. “If he can perfect a way to harvest them, who’s to say that that won’t be another opportunity for someone in agriculture.”
Going into next year, Ward said he plans to keep plants in a greenhouse on his farm to survive the winter and reduce the cost of replanting in the spring.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s all wait and see,” Ward said.