Md. farmers question lack of practicality in state rules on manure, fertilizer use

First of 6 planned hearings receives public comment on the latest revisions

February 17, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- The latest revisions in Maryland's new rules for agricultural use of manure and fertilizer do nothing to make the regulations more practical for farmers, according to several growers and livestock owners who attended the first of six public hearings on the issue last night.

Farmers complained that the rules are being made before scientists conclude how much of a problem agricultural nutrients are to the Chesapeake Bay.

The rules specify how livestock and poultry farmers can use the manure their animals produce. Many farmers are likely to face increased expenses in storage, disposal or recordkeeping.

"Why don't we write the law in 2004, when we get the information?" said David Herbst, a dairy farmer from Smithsburg in Washington County. "We're heading into this blindly, and we don't know where we're at."

Louise Lawrence, chairwoman of the Nutrient Management Advisory Committee and chief of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Resource Conservation Office, characterized the changes as minimal.

"The law requires us to do certain things," Lawrence said. "Those things are still there."

Pollution linked to poultry waste and other fertilizers is suspected of triggering the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak in Maryland waters. The situation prompted the General Assembly to pass the Water Quality Act of 1998 to limit the amount of phosphorus- and nitrogen-based fertilizer and manure farmers can spread or store.

The law called for the Department of Agriculture to write regulations with help from an advisory group that includes farmers and others who would be affected, such as horse owners and greenhouse operators.

The law sets deadlines of Dec. 31, 2001, for farmers to write individual plans and the end of 2002 for compliance.

The changes to the regulations include:

Fewer hours of training. Farmers or others who apply fertilizer or manure to the ground will have to take two hours of training every three years. The first draft of regulations, released last spring, required three hours every three years.

More flexible interpretation of a "management unit." It can be two different fields or greenhouses, even if they are not adjacent or contiguous, as long as they have similar soil, plants and uses. This allows a farmer or grower to keep one set of records for similar units.

Allowing tissue samples of plants, and soil testing, to determine phosphorus levels. Previously, the regulations allowed only soil testing.

More flexibility in timing of fertilizer application to account for specific crop needs and to ease the burden for one-person operations.

Conservationists hope the rules -- the most comprehensive in the nation -- will keep fertilizer from running into the bay and feeding algae blooms that choke aquatic life. The regulations address how much and what kind of manure or other fertilizers can be spread, and where.

Fields that are close to waterways could have tighter restrictions. The regulations could be amended if the General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. The bill calls for cost-sharing programs for all livestock farmers. Only poultry farmers benefit from cost-sharing in the original law.

The original law also referred to animal "units" that horse owners say are outmoded: a horse was considered to generate twice as much manure as a cow, from the days when most farm equine were large draft horses. The proposed bill would consider the total weight of the animals when determining the amount of manure each farm generates.

Until that law passes, the Agriculture Department must follow current legislation, Lawrence said. Most of the changes adopted by the advisory committee, and unveiled last night, are meant to ease suspicions on both sides, she said.

Farmers "thought we were going to take the most severe interpretation of these regulations, and our concern is that they might take the broadest," Lawrence said. "We're trying to frame it so that people can still manage their businesses."

Many farmers, who see themselves as stewards of the land, resent the new rules, claiming they make them the bad guys in a complicated issue.

Of Maryland's 1.6 million acres of farmland, 1.2 million are enrolled by farmers in voluntary nutrient-management plans that control the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizers used. But in the past few years, evidence indicates that phosphorus, not just nitrogen, can leach into water and find its way into the bay.

Farming isn't the only source of this nutrient runoff, but state officials have calculated that it accounts for an average of 50 percent to 60 percent of it statewide. Other sources include home lawn care, industry and golf courses.

Many farmers say research linking Pfiesteria outbreaks to farm runoff is not conclusive enough to justify the regulations. Several farmers in Central Maryland say they're being unfairly blamed for runoff from Eastern Shore poultry farms.

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