Dairy farmers `blindsided' by state's new runoff law

Little aid available

Shore chicken waste was legislators' focus


July 13, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Eastern Shore poultry growers have been the focus of the state's new fertilizer and manure regulations, but Central Maryland farmers who raise cattle, vegetables or horses could be hit just as hard financially -- if not harder -- and there is little state money available to help them.

"The dairy farmers kind of got blindsided," said Allen Stiles, a member of the Nutrient Management Advisory Committee and a Carroll County dairy farmer. "Most of the focus is on the Eastern Shore, but it is a statewide law. We're not going to really know how many bad things will happen until it gets off and running."

Chicken manure is the prime suspect in the 1997 outbreak of a fish-killing microbe that led to the regulations. Poultry farmers will get $1.5 million in help from the state and the broiler industry to haul away some of that manure to other parts of the state or other states where the soil can handle it.

Lawmakers wrote in that aid when, in response to the Pfiesteria outbreak, they passed the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, which led to the regulations.

But they didn't provide for the dairy farmers, whose cost to haul manure could be higher. Cow manure is a liquid and therefore more expensive to haul, and there is no corporate equivalent such as Perdue to help shoulder the cost.

"That's clearly an issue," said Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Office of Resource Conservation. "The law would have to be addressed first."

Powell said the department is looking broadly at how to support dairy farmers, from the standpoint of marketing and economics, and how to help them meet environmental goals.

Scientists think the Pfiesteria microbe was fed by the runoff of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen found in manure and fertilizer, but particularly the phosphorus-laden poultry litter produced by Eastern Shore farms that raise broilers.

The regulations are expected to go into effect as early as next year. A period of public comment, before they are finalized, ended Friday after six hearings around the state.

The most heavily attended hearing was the one in Westminster, according to the Agriculture Department. It also was the most contentious, with more than 250 dairy farmers and horse farmers vent- ing their anger.

Most of the problems are with the law, and the committee of farmers, officials and environmental advocates that wrote the regulations did the best it could, Stiles said.

"From the way it looks to me, they didn't consider Central and Western Maryland when they wrote the law," said Bryan Butler, an agent with the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Carroll County and husband of a Frederick County dairy farmer.

There are many ways to deal with cow manure, but most start by scraping the barnyard daily. Cow manure might be used to fertilize fields right away or stored to compost or be spread later. Most farmers spread it on the fields nearest to the barn to minimize hauling.

Butler said Central Maryland farmers are surrounded by residential developments and heavily traveled highways. They try to be sensitive to their neighbors, but if they have to haul manure farther, things could get messy.

"How do you run a manure spreader up and down these roads?" Butler said. "You get cars behind you and they're trying to get around, and the manure is flying off. There is the odor and the flies."

Stiles agrees. He said he dreads taking his farm machinery onto nearby Route 97 and thinks he can find a back way to haul manure farther afield on his 250 acres. But not all farmers will be so lucky, he said.

Most farmland in Maryland is in voluntary nutrient management planning. Farmers have been following plans they devised with help from the Maryland Cooperative Extension, and some have been certified to write plans.

But those plans have been based on nitrogen levels in soil, not on phosphorus. Now that phosphorus runoff is a concern, many farmers are finding that their land has phosphorus levels that are higher than ideal.

But it still isn't clear in the regulations what level will be too much, Butler said, and that further frustrates farmers.

People who raise horses, donkeys and even miniature horses could be unfairly affected, because the law uses federal "animal units" that were developed early in the century, Stiles said.

That means a miniature horse weighing less than 200 pounds is seen as the equivalent of a Clydesdale that weighs 2,000 pounds. And any horse or donkey is considered the equivalent of two cows.

It makes no sense to use the outdated animal units, Stiles said, but the advisory committee he served on had to work within the law. It has recommended that those measurements be updated, he said.

The law requires a nutrient management plan from anyone who owns or boards the equivalent of eight animal units: eight cows, four horses, 20 hogs; or anyone who makes at least $2,500 a year from animal or crop farming or who plants at least 10 acres.

Stiles said he has heard some part-time farmers who raise just enough vegetables or nursery plants to fall under this law could end up spending half of what they make just to devise nutrient management plans. Vegetables and nursery plants are considered high-value crops that make the most of a small farm.

"A lot of the farms in Carroll County and Baltimore County with small acreage, that's what they're growing," Stiles said. "We need to make sure they aren't run out of business. That's what's keeping the land in Carroll and Baltimore counties out of development."

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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