Farmers resent proposed runoff rules aimed at Pfiesteria

Limits on fertilizers are called overkill in in light of 3 outbreaks

May 27, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Bob Garrett says he's being unjustly being blamed for the Pfiesteria outbreaks two years ago that resulted in fish kills that closed three Chesapeake Bay tributaries, proved harmful to humans and knocked the state's seafood and tourism industries for a loop.

Garrett grows corn and soybeans on a spread just outside of Easton. He was one of about 50 farmers who turned out Tuesday night for the first of six public hearings scheduled by the state Department of Agriculture on the proposed regulations stemming from the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreaks.

"Your plan offends me," he told state officials. "I don't have chickens. The problem started on the Lower Shore. Why paint the whole state with the same brush?"

Many farmers are still bitter over what they perceive as a rush to judgment by politicians and environmentalists in Annapolis in establishing regulations designed to limit nutrient runoff from their land.

The farmers are quick to point out that while some scientists think runoff feeds the fish-killing microbe Pfiesteria piscicida, it has yet to be proven.

While those attending the public meeting were less emotional and less vehement than the Department of Agriculture expected, they were not bashful about expressing their opinions.

"Ten or 15 years down the road you will see that we spent a lot of money we didn't need to," said Raymond Harrison Jr. of Easton.

"We had one of the best voluntary [nutrient management] programs in the country, and it was going forward. That's how we feel and we're troubled by [the state's proposed mandatory program]."

Ted Haas, an agronomist with the University of Maryland, noted that state grain farmers are going through a very difficult times. He said wheat is selling for $2.15 a bushel, and growers need $3 a bushel to break even.

If the agriculture economic climate gets worse, could the state suspend the new regulations? Haas asked. He said a moratorium might be needed to protect the solvency of Maryland farms.

Michael Mielke of Easton drew a round of applause when he said: "We feel like the state has declared war on us."

Lawrence M. Willis of Trappe blamed farm pollution problems on the world's growing population. "I hope you realize there are too many people in the world," he told state officials. "People have to eat, and the more people we feed, the more waste there is from farm production."

As proposed, the regulations implementing the state's Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998 would require mandatory controls on farm nutrient runoff by 2002. Farmers could be fined up to $2,000 a year for not complying.

Farmers applying animal manure on their fields would have until the end of 2001 to develop a nutrient-management plan that has to be implemented a year later. Those spreading commercial fertilizers on their fields would need to implement plans by the end of 2002.

The plan involves a formula to determine how much fertilizer can be used on a given farm.

When Kevin Anderson, a grain farmer from Princess Anne, asked about the fines, Royden N. Powell III, assistant state agriculture secretary, said they would not be used to support the program.

Powell added: "When we see a farmer is making a good-faith effort [to implement a nutrient management plan], we are going to work with him to get him where he needs to be."

Easton nursery operator Michael Hemming said the part of the regulations that allows the state to come onto a farm after a 48-hour notice to examine a farmer's nutrient management records "came close to illegal search and seizure." He asked if the state had a lawyer look over the regulations.

Powell assured him that attorneys were involved. He said the final draft of the enabling regulations also would be reviewed by the General Assembly's Legislative Review Committee to make certain they are consistent with the Water Quality Improvement Act. "That's the checks and balances in the system."

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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