Farmer fears new laws doom organic operation

Nutrient management may reduce pollution, threaten way of life

February 23, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Early Monroe first got into organic farming because his 6-year-old son, Ryan, is allergic to the chemicals and dyes used in many conventional foods.

"I thought we could grow most of the food we eat without chemicals," he said yesterday morning as he strolled over part of his 184-acre farm, where he raises tomatoes, squash, cabbage, peppers, beans and other vegetables on land that has no traces of herbicides or pesticides.

His Black Angus cattle and Rhode Island Red chickens dine on hay and grains grown without chemicals and are given no growth stimulants or hormones.

Monroe has turned the farm into a business that grossed more than $150,000 last year wholesaling organic produce and poultry to restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington region.

Now he's nervous that it could all end.

It's not for a lack of demand. The organic food industry is growing at a rate of 20 percent to 25 percent annually.

Monroe fears that Maryland's new nutrient-management laws, aimed at reducing pollution coming from the land that was suspected of causing the Pfiesteria outbreaks in 1997, will halt his thriving organic farm operation and others in the state. The laws place mandatory controls on farm nutrient runoff.

Unlike conventional farmers, organic growers can't use chemical fertilizers.

They rely on animal manure to supply the land with nitrogen and phosphorus needed for healthy plant growth.

"The way things stand now," said Monroe, "I would be forced to end my commercial poultry and vegetable operations."

He raises about 27,000 chickens and ducks each year.

The problem is that the droppings from the birds, which are contained in cages that are moved around the farm, add to the already high phosphorus levels of the soil.

"Organic slipped through the cracks when they came up with the new nutrient-management laws," he said. "Nobody focused on the impact the laws would have on the organic farming."

Robert Pooler, head of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's organic certification program, said 57 farms are certified or are becoming certified.

That does not accurately reflect the size of the industry in Maryland said Monroe, past chairman of the Maryland Organic Foods and Farming Association and an appointee of the governor to the 22-member Agriculture Commission, which advises the state agriculture secretary on industry trends and policy.

"A lot of farms are certified out of state, and I would say there are more than 100 certified farms in Maryland," Pooler said.

Their plight hasn't gone unnoticed. Louise Lawrence, chief of the Maryland Agriculture Department's office of resource conservation, said she has heard from a number of the state's organic farmers.

"Everybody is screaming they are going to go out of business," she said.

She said the department has recognized the concerns of the organic farmers and is seeking a solution.

Lawrence said the nutrient-management regulations are not "one size fits all." She said the challenge is to adjust the regulations so the goals can be accom- plished without putting undue pressure on any segment of agriculture.

"Maybe there are things organic farmers can do," she said, mentioning the planting of cover crops to help remove phosphorus from the soil or the planting of buffer zones to prevent nutrient runoff.

Lawrence said the deadline for implementation of plans to control phosphorus runoff is 2004.

"There is a lot of time to try to make adjustments," she said.

She said the department will welcome organic farms that volunteer to work with the state in seeking solutions to their problems.

Monroe said his farm is available.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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