Pa. farmers coping with fertilizer law Use of animal manure is regulated to curb polluted runoff

'Maryland could learn'

But .. farmers here are likely to resist, Farm Bureau warns

December 28, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

LEOLA, Pa. -- Farmers are independent by nature, and Ivan "Pip" Ravegum seems no exception. Yet the veteran manager of Grey-stone Manor Farms here welcomes a set of government regulations telling him how to handle the 5,000 tons of manure produced annually by his herd of 425 steers.

"It's going to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, there's no doubt about that," said Ravegum, 63. The creek that runs through the Lancaster County farm feeds ultimately into the Susquehanna River, the bay's largest tributary.

Nearly two months ago, under a pioneering law, Pennsylvania began to regulate farmers' use of animal manure to fertilize their crops. Greystone Manor was the first of 2,500 farms that state officials estimate will be required to curb nutrient-polluted runoff washing from their fields into nearby streams.

In the wake of the Pfiesteria outbreaks last summer on the lower Eastern Shore, some in Annapolis are looking at the Pennsylvania law as a model for how Maryland should attack its farm runoff, which has been linked with the proliferation of fish-killing microorganisms in the Chesapeake.

"To me, it looks like it's the right way to run a nutrient-management program," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh. The Montgomery County Democrat, chairman of the environment subcommittee, said he will introduce a bill patterned after Pennsylvania's law to regulate farm manure use unless Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposes similar legislation. The governor has yet to say what he will do.

Maryland farmers are likely to fight moves to regulate them, said Steve Weber, president of the state Farm Bureau. He contended that, compared with farmers in Pennsylvania, they have done more to curb runoff voluntarily, with self-imposed limits on fertilizer on more than 900,000 acres of croplands statewide.

"The folks that have animal waste, they don't need penalties. They need help," said Weber.

In Pennsylvania, opinions are just as divided about government regulation, but with a switch. Farmers for the most part accept the state-required runoff controls, while environmentalists are skeptical about their value.

John Bell, governmental affairs counsel for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said of his 25,000 members: "They're not doing cartwheels, but I think they appreciate the need for responsible action."

Among other things, the Pennsylvania controls are accompanied cost incentives and measures to protect farmers against nuisance complaints.

Lamonte Garber, a farm specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Harrisburg, said the regulations are riddled with loopholes and compromises that weaken the intent of the law.

"Yes, Maryland could learn some things from the Pennsylvania experience," Garber said, "but we would want them to go well beyond what Pennsylvania has done."

Groundbreaking law

Pennsylvania's nutrient-management law was the first of its kind in the country when it was enacted in 1993. It took effect in October after four years of bruising negotiations among farmers, state officials and environmentalists over how it would work.

"It was a tough drag," recalled Doug Goodlander, head of nutrient management in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The outcome of 20,000 hours of public hearings and haggling is a program that balances environmental protection against what farmers can afford to do, he said, and neither side got everything it wanted.

Farms with more than 2,000 pounds of livestock or poultry per acre of farmland must develop plans by Oct. 1 for storing and using their manure. They have an additional three years to do what the plans specify.

State helps pay

To ease the burden on affected farmers, the state has offered to pay up to 75 percent of the cost of preparing the plans, which can run from $300 to $700, by one estimate. More state aid is promised, although not budgeted, to help farmers build manure storage tanks or lagoons and other runoff controls.

Although the regulations apply to only 5 percent to 10 percent of the state's farms, officials estimate that 60 percent of those covered are in the sensitive Susquehanna watershed in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In the past two months, Goodlander said, the state has received many inquiries about how to comply with the law, including from representatives of large pork and poultry processing companies. The companies contract with Pennsylvania farmers to raise their animals.

"I think it's something we can all live with," said Mark Lovette, a production manager for Tyson Foods.

The Arkansas-based poultry producer gets 500,000 broilers a week from 85 contract growers in southeastern Pennsylvania, he said, and the company buys most of the manure the birds produce and sells it as fertilizer to nearby mushroom growers.

"We're going to help them do what they need to find a proper home for it," Lovette said of his growers' manure. "But we can't be responsible for all of it."

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