Farmers seek to slow bills on Pfiesteria At meeting tomorrow, Md. officials to hear from poultry growers

Rush to regulate is feared

Rumors rife of bills aimed at reducing runoff on shore

January 04, 1998|By Heather Dewar and Christian Ewell | Heather Dewar and Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Eastern Shore farmers, fearing a rush to regulate their operations after last summer's Pfiesteria outbreak, will ask state lawmakers tomorrow to hold out for airtight proof of a link between farm practices and the microorganism's toxic outbreaks.

Wicomico County Councilman Louis R. Molnar, a produce and poultry farmer, has organized a public hearing of legislators and other state officials to be held at 7 p.m. at Wicomico Youth and Civic Center in Salisbury.

In a written invitation, Molnar asked poultry growers to turn out in force to send a go-slow message to legislators a week before the start of the General Assembly session.

"Numbers count in politics, and a large crowd is essential if we are to defeat unacceptable and economically devastating proposals," Molnar wrote.

The councilman said yesterday that the county farm bureau and Delmarva Farm Industry Inc., a poultry growers organization, sent more than 1,100 invitations to farmers in Wicomico, Somerset, Worcester and Dorchester counties.

Molnar said he hoped that at least 300 people would attend the session. The only other hearings on the Pfiesteria problem in Maryland were those conducted in the fall by a gubernatorial commission, he said, adding that the meetings were not well-publicized and many farmers did not know about them until it was too late to attend.

"It's real important that the public be perceived as having some input on the process," Molnar said. "First on what's causing the problem, secondly on how we can solve it."

One speaker will be Del. Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico Democrat who says his constituents are worried that farmers might be forced to sharply reduce the amount of chicken manure they spread on their fields.

The manure is a cheap, effective fertilizer, farmers say, and more than eight out of 10 Lower Shore farmers used it on their fields last year, according to a state Department of Agriculture survey.

The state commission investigating last summer's outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida and similar organisms concluded that manure-rich runoff into Eastern Shore rivers and streams contributed to the problem.

The panel, headed by former Gov. Harry Hughes, said nutrients in the runoff helped create the conditions that caused the dinoflagellate organisms to change from dormant to dangerous, killing fish and sickening people along the Pocomoke River and other waterways.

The panel recommended that all Maryland farmers adopt plans within the next five years for limiting the amount of manure they spread on their fields.

Those limits could leave Lower Shore poultry farmers, who raise most of the 300 million chickens produced annually in Maryland, with the problem of disposing of the manure. Growers of field crops might have to turn to costly chemical fertilizers or take some of their land out of production to create buffer zones between farm fields and waterways flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

In the days before the Jan. 14 opening of the General Assembly, rumors abound about a spate of bills aimed at reducing nutrient-laden runoff from farm fields, Conway said.

Among the ideas that farmers find most alarming are a proposed moratorium on new chicken-raising operations and a tax on Maryland poultry, he said.

"The agriculture folks are very much concerned about proposals that they see as very much a rush to judgment," Conway said.

Molnar said he doubted that the outbreak was "exclusively nutrient-driven," adding that 25 percent of the Pfiesteria-infected areas in North Carolina had low nutrient levels. "I don't know how we can expect to find a solution in 45 days when they've been working on it in North Carolina for a number of years," he said.

Eastern Shore farmers are willing to take steps to reduce the risk of future Pfiesteria outbreaks, he said, "but it's got to be proven to work. It can't be someone's idea or someone's theory."

One of the goals of tomorrow's meeting, Conway said, is to get that message out to Eastern Shore delegates. But he said he expected that those at the meeting would be open to proposals for some voluntary changes in the way they run their farms.

"There are some people here who have concerns about the use of chicken manure year after year and the effect that may be having," he said. "Our folks, for the most part, want to do what is right and what is reasonable. After all, they're the ones who depend on the land, and they need for it to be healthy."

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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