Farmers face rising costs to help bay Alternatives sought to curb use of chicken manure as fertilizer

'A very painful decision'

Transporting waste where it's needed, composting weighed

November 09, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

VIENNA -- The drastic change in farm practices that a panel has recommended to fight toxic microbes in the Chesapeake Bay would raise costs for Maryland farmers, especially on the lower Eastern Shore, where chicken manure might no longer be widely used as fertilizer.

With poultry waste piling up on the lower Shore at the rate of nearly 355,000 tons a year, officials and researchers are scrambling for cost-effective alternatives to spreading it on the land. Proposals range from trucking manure hundreds of miles away to solutions that are being tried, such as composting it for sale to home gardeners.

"I don't know where they're going to put it if they don't let us use it," said Balvin Brinsfield Jr., who collects chicken "litter" from neighboring farms near here to fertilize vegetables, watermelons and soybeans.

The state commission investigating the summer outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida and similar microorganisms recommends that in the next five years, all Maryland farmers adopt plans for limiting how much fertilizer they spread on their fields.

Many farmers have such "nutrient management plans," which spell out the quantity of manure or commercial fertilizer crops need for an ideal diet of nitrogen.

The Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commission, headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, urges the state to curb another nutrient, phosphorus. Researchers now suspect runoff of phosphorus from saturated farm fields may help trigger growth of Pfiesteria and related organisms.

"It is a very painful decision to make," said Thomas W. Simpson, Chesapeake Bay program coordinator for the state Agriculture Department. Research shows that phosphorus, which normally binds to soil, will dissolve at high levels and run off when it rains.

Limiting phosphorus could be especially painful for farmers on the lower Shore, where most of the nearly 300 million chickens produced annually in Maryland are raised. Waste left by the birds is used to fertilize fields in the region.

Conscientious farmers limit how thickly they spread the manure to ensure that crops get no more nitrogen than they need. However, animal manure -- especially from chickens -- contains far more phosphorus than most crops can use, so it builds up in the soil.

On the lower Shore -- epicenter of the state's $1 billion poultry industry -- 90 percent of the soils tested by the University of Maryland are saturated with phosphorus. Some are so overloaded they could raise crops for 10 to 50 years before needing more, Simpson said.

Switching to phosphorus-based nutrient management "is going to be much more difficult for farmers and more expensive," said Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley.

Under such a plan, farmers would have to sharply reduce the amount of manure they spread on their fields. Where the phosphorus level of the soil is high, it's likely no manure could be used at all.

Instead, farmers would have to buy chemical fertilizer to give their crops the nitrogen needed for them to grow. Farmers have said that could boost production costs by as much as $50 an acre.

Doug Parker, a University of Maryland economist, estimated that corn growers might see a 23 percent drop in net revenues if they had to substitute commercial fertilizer for "free" manure.

Limiting the amount of phosphorus applied to crops "has rather dramatic effects on the way you farm," observed Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, who organized a congressional briefing last week on animal waste.

To see those effects, one need go no farther than northeastern Dorchester County, where Brinsfield, 75, and his 40-year-old son, Balvin Brinsfield 3rd, farm 500 acres near Vienna. They raise potatoes, soybeans, string beans, sweet corn and watermelons on fields that border a creek feeding into the Nanticoke River.

Father and son took time out from repairing an irrigation system to express qualms about the Hughes commission recommendation to curtail manure use.

"I think they're jumping on us kind of hard here," Balvin 3rd said. He and his father suggested that farmers get too much blame for the Pfiesteria outbreaks last summer in streams in Somerset and Dorchester counties.

The Brinsfields fertilize their fields with manure from neighboring farmers. They get most of it free in exchange for cleaning out chicken houses, while one neighbor sells his litter for $5 a ton.

Dorchester farm soils have some of the state's highest %o phosphorus levels, but the senior Brinsfield said he does not believe his land is that saturated. After spreading 3 tons of poultry litter per acre, the Brinsfields grow two crops a year on most fields.

The manure gives them almost all the nitrogen they need, Brinsfield said. If they used less manure, they would have to buy nitrogen-only chemical fertilizer to make up the difference.

And if they had to make two passes over every field at planting time to fertilize with manure and chemical fertilizer, the Brinsfields said they probably wouldn't bother with manure.

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