Whether you are a Louisiana poultry farmer or just keep chickens in your back yard, there may soon be a solution to the vexing problem of disposing of chicken waste, thanks to a research project initiated by the LSU AgCenter. The AgCenter is testing out the efficacy of using “chicken litter” (the name for composted chicken manure) to grow tomatoes and other vegetables and will have preliminary answers as early as late-June from an urban garden installed near the Convention Center.

According to Bobby Fletcher of the AgCenter, it just makes sense to utilize chicken litter as a fertilizer because of the number of poultry farms in the state.

“Plus there is such an interest in urban agriculture now, and we wanted to install the research garden in the middle of the city to help educate the public about urban agriculture and how the AgCenter can help,” Fletcher said.

In March, a group of volunteers with the Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans helped plant 90 Bella Rosa tomato plants in the research garden, located at the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Henderson streets in the Warehouse District (“behind the Poseidon/alligator sculpture,” said Catherine Siegel of the volunteer group).

Fletcher said that 30 of the plants were fertilized using a commercially available fertilizer, another 30 with a concentrated dose of chicken litter, and the remaining 30 with a less concentrated mix of chicken litter combined with other organics. The experiment aims to determine which treatment boosts growth the most, which results in a better quality harvest, and which is the most economical.

“We are also replicating the garden at the Burden Research Center in Baton Rouge and will be planting a third garden in Bossier City,” Fletcher said. “Three different treatments at three sites will yield preliminary findings that we will compile and report in June,” Fletcher said. “We will repeat the process next spring and then have enough data to make a final report.”

Tomatoes grown at the New Orleans site will be donated to non-profit organizations, including Café Reconcile, Café Hope, and St. Michael’s.

To complement the tomato planting, volunteers with the Master Gardeners went to the site this week to plant an additional five rows of vegetables and herbs in a demonstration garden. The vegetable and herbs will be used in the first weekend in August when the Farm to Table International Symposium, Louisiana Foodservice & Hospitality Expo, and the Great American Seafood Cook-off fill the New Orleans Convention Center with growers, chefs, and consumers.

Although the primary goal of the research garden is to test the benefits of using chicken litter as an organic fertilizer, a secondary goal is to demonstrate best practices for urban gardens.

“We’re growing the tomatoes in rows in a raised bed because it’s important to make sure drainage is good in this wet climate. For instance, we got 3 ½ inches of rain at the Tchoupitoulas site this week,” Fletcher said. “We use a drip irrigation system and install black plastic as ‘mulch’ on top of that to suppress weeds and retain moisture. And we use a ‘trellis weave’ system for supporting the tomatoes so that each plant does not need to be tied to a stake.” The trellis weave system relies on string stretched between rebar stakes to support the plants as they grow. As they gain height, another string is added, and so on.

Although chicken litter may be determined to be the preferred organic fertilizer, Fletcher warns against using “green” or uncomposted chicken manure in gardens.

“Not only are there harmful microorganisms in raw chicken waste, but if it is added to a garden, the composting process will begin,” Fletcher said. “That will raise the bed temperature well over 100 degrees and no grower would want that.”