Governor swears in Virts as state agriculture secretary Republican inherits tough Pfiesteria issue

January 07, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to this article.

Henry A. "Bud" Virts took one of the hottest seats in Maryland yesterday as he was sworn in as state agriculture secretary.

At a State House ceremony, the self-described "old country horse doctor" assumed an office that is almost certain to be at the center of a political firestorm over the state's response to last year's outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in Maryland waters.

Ironically, the fish-killing microbe contributed to a 25-minute delay in the swearing-in. Gov. Parris N. Glendening explained his late arrival by saying a senior staff meeting on the Pfiesteria issue had run into overtime.

Virts, a former state veterinarian who has been deputy secretary of the department since 1994, was named agriculture chief in October after Lewis R. Riley -- a popular figure among farmers -- resigned because of his wife's health problems. Like his former boss, Virts will be a Republican serving in a Democratic administration.

As secretary, the 65-year-old Virts will have the task of explaining the administration's anti-Pfiesteria program to a skeptical -- if not actively hostile -- agriculture industry.

"It may be the most controversial time for an agriculture secretary -- ever -- to take over," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the state's chicken industry.

The details of the governor's proposal will not be announced until the State of the State address later this month, but many farmers -- especially chicken growers -- fear Glendening will seek to impose burdensome anti-pollution regulations on agricultural operations. Farmers are also concerned that the governor has not ruled out a suggestion by environmental groups that the state impose a penny-a-pound tax on chicken produced in the state to fund pollution cleanup programs.

Farm pollution -- especially from the manure produced by the Eastern Shore's huge chicken industry -- has come under scrutiny in the wake of last summer's Pfiesteria outbreaks in three Eastern Shore tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

In a report that is expected to form the basis for Glendening's legislative program, a task force identified nutrient pollution from agriculture as a probable contributing factor in the Pfiesteria outbreaks. The task force concluded that the state's current voluntary program under which farmers adopt nutrient management plans should be made mandatory -- a proposal that has drawn protests from agricultural industries.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, one of the General Assembly's most outspoken advocates for agricultural causes, said Virts is highly qualified but will likely find himself "between the devil and the deep blue sea." Said the Lower Shore Republican: "He's gotta stand up for the farmer, yet we have a governor who tends to lean toward environmental extremes."

But Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a longtime friend, joked that Virts' 28-year career as a large animal veterinarian -- giving enemas to cows and horses -- makes him ideally qualified for the job.

If Virts' reception at a meeting of Lower Shore farmers Monday night in Salisbury was any indication, Goldstein might have chosen an apt analogy.

Appearing with other Glendening administration officials before a testy crowd of about 600 people, Virts attempted a joke about sick chickens drawn from his days "as a country vet over on the Western Shore." The humor fell flat.

Virts, who owns almost 500 acres of farmland around his hometown of Mechanicsville, said he realizes he might end up spending much of the next few months being hollered at by people upset at the governor's program.

"That doesn't bother me very much. I've got broad shoulders," he said.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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