Agriculture secretary cited for ignoring pollution guidelines

January 22, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

As Maryland's secretary of agriculture, Wayne A. Cawley Jr. is responsible for getting the state's farmers to do their part to save Chesapeake Bay from pollution.

But Wayne Cawley, farmer, has been taken to task for not following his own department's advice on reducing agricultural pollution of the bay from his own cornfields on the Eastern Shore.

Caroline County's environmental health director, Lester W. Coble Jr., cited Cawley recently for not following "best management practices" on his farm on old Md. 404, just west of Denton.

Best management practices, or "BMPs," are largely voluntary guidelines for farmers that are intended to minimize soil erosion and runoff of fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus, the two nutrients blamed for polluting the bay.

A federal advisory panel reported recently that farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region have been slow to adopt such voluntary pollution control measures. The panel warned that the bay states will not meet their pledge to cut nutrient pollution by 40 percent by the end of the decade without more aggressive efforts to curb agricultural and urban runoff.

In a Nov. 28 letter, Coble wrote Cawley that he had received complaints, apparently from neighbors, about the odor from chicken manure spread on Cawley's farm.

Chicken manure is acceptable for fertilizing fields, Coble said, but the way the manure was stockpiled and spread on Cawley's fields made the stench last three to four weeks, much longer than normal. Coble also contended that it increased the risk of rainfall runoff polluting nearby Choptank River, a bay tributary.

"Will you investigate this matter?" Coble wrote Cawley. "As secretary of agriculture, you know it doesn't matter that this action is not illegal, it simply becomes a matter of the appearance of your department being inconsistent that creates the problem."

Cawley, who released Coble's letter himself when contacted by The Evening Sun, said he has been using chicken manure to fertilize his 500 acres of cornfields for years, with no complaints until now. He attributed the complaints to residents of new homes built near his farm.

"I'm in a farming area. My boys spread manure. There's no law against the odor, none," Cawley said. "I didn't like the odor, either."

The agriculture secretary acknowledged that the manure "seemed to stink more than I've ever seen" when it was applied last fall. He blamed it on unusually warm weather when the manure was put on the fields by his son, Gail, who manages the farm.

Coble said the odor lingered because manure was stockpiled in the open for several days before it was spread, and then was left on the surface after it was spread.

"It was bad," Coble said in an interview. "I drive by [Cawley's farm] every day, and I would think, 'Oh, God, for the next quarter-mile I've got to smell it.' "

Best management practices call for disking or plowing manure into the soil within 24 hours of when it is spread, Coble wrote. That would keep more nitrogen in the soil and out of the water, and it would reduce odors, he noted.

Coble also charged that manure had been spread up to the edge of a basin that drains rainwater from a field into the Choptank River. Environmental guidelines call for leaving a grassy buffer of 15 to 20 feet around such drainage basins to soak up some of the nutrient-laden runoff before it can reach streams and rivers.

Cawley took issue with the health official's letter. He contended that it would cause more erosion to plow the manure under because the surface is bare of vegetation late in the year and more likely to wash away in rain. And he said it would be impossible to wait until spring planting to fertilize all of his fields.

Still, Cawley said, he asked his staff to look into the complaints.

Charles Knott, a conservation planner in the Caroline County soil conservation office, said he did not see any manure improperly stockpiled or spread too close to drainage areas when he visited Cawley's farm recently to investigate.

However, a new plan for managing nutrients on Cawley's farm has been drawn up by the University of Maryland agricultural extension service.

Knott said the plan advises how much fertilizer is needed, based on laboratory tests of soil in the fields. The plan also recommends plowing manure into the soil as soon as possible after it is spread, he said.

Such site-specific nutrient management plans are still relatively rare among Maryland farmers. They have been drawn up to cover only about 50,000 of more than 2 million acres of farmland in the state, according to Rosemary Roswell, an assistant agriculture secretary.

The state agriculture department tries to limit pollution from nutrient-rich animal wastes by helping farmers pay for building storage sheds, where they can stockpile manure safe from rainfall and runoff. More than 900 such sheds have been built so far, but more than 3,100 more are needed, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.

Cawley's farm is not eligible for such state aid, however, since he does not raise poultry himself but instead imports manure from neighboring farms. Cawley said he has tried in the past to cover manure piles with plastic tarps, but they are torn off by wind and by animals.

Gail Cawley, who manages the family farm, said he had done nothing wrong and doesn't plan to do anything differently.

But his father vowed, "If there's some improvements to be made, we'll do it."

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