Farmers' waste management being surveyed

June 12, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

A note to local farmers: If a cheerful woman steps out of her car and asks you how many cows you've got on your farm, don't look at her as if she's crazy.

L She's just trying to prove you're environmentally conscious.

This summer, Nancy Powel -- a 1991 dairy science graduate from Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- will travel all over the county interviewing farmers about their livestock- and manure-management practices.

Extension agency officials expect the results to show that mandatory regulations keeping animals from polluting local rivers and the Chesapeake Bay aren't necessary, she said.

"I'm supposed to stop at anyplace in the county that has any type of livestock," said Ms. Powel, 25. "We're hopeful that the data will help combat accusations of Chesapeake Bay pollution by farmers.

"We can say 'No, they're not,' but we have nothing to show that good management practices are being used."

The Maryland Extension Service survey, which is being paid for with a $31,000 grant from the Chesapeake Research Consortium, is being done in Wicomico and Carroll counties, said Herb Brodie, a University of Maryland College Park professor with the Department of Agricultural Engineering.

Carroll County was chosen because it has a high concentration of livestock, Wicomico County because of its high concentration of poultry farms, he said.

The Chesapeake Research Consortium is a group of universities in the Chesapeake region including the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Smith College and the College of William and Mary, Mr. Brodie said.

Phyllis Rollyson is doing the survey for Wicomico County, he said.

The data will be analyzed by an Extension Agency staff member after it is collected, Mr. Brodie said.

"It's one of those things that's hard to plan for," he said, noting that the surveyors began collecting data in April.

"One group says that we should be able to solve the problem voluntarily," Mr. Brodie said.

"The other group says that will never happen and we will need to regulate with a police force making sure people comply.

"We're on the former side and will try to prove that the former side is correct."

The survey gets completed one of two ways, Ms. Powel said.

Under the best conditions, she runs through the two-page survey with the farmer, gathering responses and comments.

If no one is home, she just sits by the road and fills out the survey using what she observes as a reference.

"People laugh at some of the questions," she said, noting that questions about whether farmers would accept various types of waste on their properties have elicited stronger responses.

"With the sewage sludge question, I've had people yell at me for 10 minutes," she said.

"Some farmers have said they don't want grass clippings from people in town because they use too many chemicals, like Chemlawn.

"People are better educated about these issues than I thought. They are just as concerned about heavy metals and environmental issues as anyone else."

In discussions about Chesapeake Bay protection and other environmental issues, statisticians have used numbers derived from the federal Census of Agriculture -- taken every five years -- and statewide surveys, said David Greene, head of the Carroll County Extension Agency.

The current survey, in contrast, will count every farm animal in the county instead of using averages, he said.

"This is a way of determining the accuracy of the methods we've been using to report animal populations," Mr. Greene said.

"With the emphasis on the Chesapeake Bay, we need to be as accurate on these numbers as we can get."

In addition to counting animals, the survey will record what types of manure management farmers are using, Mr. Brodie said.

Agriculture officials say they suspect that more farmers are voluntarily complying with management efforts than have filed reports with government agencies such as the Soil Conservation Service.

"We can say that we're effective, but people don't believe that," Mr. Brodie said.

"We have to show them that we're effective.

"The survey is part of this, to generally prove that we're doing the job that we're supposed to do."

The survey is also designed to gauge farmers' opinions about manure-management options and receiving urban waste -- such as lawn clippings and organic industrial waste from food processing -- for compost, Mr. Brodie said.

Agriculture has to be willing to accept the waste because "there are limited things you can do with these products," he said. "They can be a benefit to agriculture."

Agency officials expect to determine how many farmers have begun nutrient- and manure-management projects since the group started education programs five years ago, Mr. Brodie said.

Officials will then assess which programs have been successful and where education is needed, he said.

The agency survey may also pick up people who are not covered by the Census of Agriculture, Mr. Greene said.

The census is sent only to those people with at least $1,000 a year in sales; Ms. Powel's survey will include anyone who has livestock on his property, he said.

Some county residents have a number of horses or steers, but simply for personal use, Ms. Powel said.

"It's up to the person doing the survey," said Mr. Brodie, noting that he hasn't requested a minimum number of animals be included.

"If they see five cows on a quarter-acre, that's one thing. But five cows on 20 acres might not be worth talking about.

"If they have animals, they are part of our audience, whether they consider themselves farmers or not."

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