Farmers awaiting 'critical' Assembly Pfiesteria outbreak will be prompting bills unwanted by growers

December 14, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Nobody is saying that the future of agriculture in Maryland is on the line, but the upcoming General Assembly session will have a lot to say about the viability of the state's largest industry.

"This is going to be the most critical session for the agriculture community in the 31 years that I've been in public office," said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. "What may or may not take place during those 90 days will play a major role in the direction of this industry."

Lawmakers will be wrestling with a crop of bills dealing with what farmers call the "P" word. That's their way of referring to Pfiesteria piscicida and the initiation of legislation that some say poses a major threat to Eastern Shore poultry and grain growers.

There will also be a replay of one of the most hotly debated topics of the last session, as dairy farmers come back with a plan designed to halt their declining numbers.

"There is no doubt about it," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., "we are going to be dealing with issues very vital to agriculture and we are going to have to be very cautious in our action."

Riley noted that agriculture, including food processing, is the state's largest industry, representing $11 billion in annual sales and employing 350,000 workers.

On the Pfiesteria front, Riley said he anticipates bills that would make it mandatory for farmers to have in place by 2002 nutrient-management plans that could significantly reduce, or even bar, their use of chicken manure as a fertilizer.

"Some interest groups, especially the environmental groups, will be demanding very strict restrictions on the use of chicken manure," said Taylor. "Other, more moderate interest groups will suggest we go more cautiously, or more lightly, in dealing with this issue."

Nutrients in farm runoff are suspected of contributing to the toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks in Maryland waters during the summer, and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he will likely introduce legislation that would require farmers to control that runoff.

He said he is first waiting to see what Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposes in his legislative package to the General Assembly.

Noting that about 80 percent of the farms on the lower Eastern Shore have high phosphorus levels, Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset County Republican, said that a mandatory phosphorus-based nutrient-management program "basically says farmers can't spread manure."

He added: "It will cost farmers $30 to $50 an acre more to apply chemical fertilizer in place of manure, and that is frequently more than their profit per acre farmed."

"If the farmer can't survive, we're not going to have a chicken industry," Stoltzfus said. "And, without the poultry industry, this is going to be another Appalachia."

He said it already costs chicken processors three-fourths of a cent more to grow a chicken in Maryland than in Arkansas. "That doesn't sound like much," he said, "but in an industry that measures profits in 1 or 2 cents a pound, that is a significant amount."

Kay Richardson, president of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., told delegates to the Maryland Farm Bureau convention last week that a 4 percent decline in chicken production would cost Maryland $74 million in economic output, $29 million in personal income and business profit and 880 jobs.

Taylor said caution is needed in dealing with any Pfiesteria-related legislation that could increase the farmer's cost production. "My general guideline is to make sure we've got all the facts we can get and base our decisions on science as much as possible," he said. "We will have to find a mainstream approach to all the issues involving agriculture, the seafood industry and tourism, all of which play a major role in Maryland's ++ economy."

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, chairman of the Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commission and a strong advocate of protecting the Chesapeake Bay, is another who is urging restraint.

During an appearance at the Farm Bureau convention, Hughes said the challenge facing lawmakers is to come up with a solution to nutrient runoff while keeping farmers and the poultry industry solvent. He said this would probably mean state funds to construct manure-composting facilities, or some way of compensating farmers for not spreading manure over their fields.

Taylor also is concerned about anticipated legislation that would impose a building moratorium on poultry houses. "Again, I think we need to be very cautious when we talk about a moratorium that takes us on a new road that no other state has traveled," he said.

"A moratorium would absolutely kill the poultry industry [in Maryland]," Stoltzfus said. He said each year the industry loses a number of chicken houses "and if you can't replace them, the number will keep going down, down, down until there was nothing left."

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