North Carolina agricultural officials have come up with “a progressive and innovative” way to turn the 4.2 million turkeys and chickens that died in North Carolina from the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence carcasses into something useful: compost.

Composting is not new. Farmers have been using the practice for generations. It just hadn’t been tried on such a mass scale following a weather disaster until Hurricane Matthew in 2016, said Joe Reardon, consumer protection assistant commissioner for the state Department of Agriculture.

Reardon said North Carolina was the first state in the country to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to compost the 1.8 million birds that died during Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 8, 2016. “As unfortunate as it is to have lost these animals, I think it’s a testament to our commissioner (Steve Troxler) of what we have done,” Reardon said.

Hurricane Florence brought an even bigger disaster than Matthew, with more than twice as many dead poultry. So Reardon said the Department of Agriculture again turned to FEMA for help, requesting up to $20 million to turn the dead birds into compost. He said he wouldn’t have an exact figure of the actual costs until after the composting process is completed in about a week.

The process seems relatively simple. Lay a carbon source such as wood chips on the ground, typically outside of the poultry houses, followed by a layer of sawdust. Place the dead poultry and litter on top of the sawdust, then cover with more sawdust and wood chips to form a giant mound that Reardon referred to as a windrow. A natural process will raise the temperature to between 140 and 160 degrees inside the mound for 10 to 15 days.

“Heating and curing denatures the birds and kills pathogens,” Reardon said. “You end up with organic material the farmer can use. It provides a good source of nutrition to the land itself.” The entire process takes about 21 days, Reardon said.

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