Farmers to meet over manure plan

Environmental measure could force some to alter their fertilizer schedules

March 09, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The days are getting warmer, but the earth is slow to thaw. It's the season when farmers take advantage of the still-firm ground to perform an annual chore that is under increasing scrutiny: spreading fertilizer.

Today, many of them are likely to spend the day in the fields, and the evening at a public hearing on the state's proposed regulations on fertilizer and manure, at 7 p.m. at Westminster High School. It is the last in a series of six public hearings since Feb. 16.

Among the clarifications offered for public comment is flexibility in the timing of fertilizer application.

Although the new rules all but prohibit application of fertilizer and manure to hard-frozen and snow-covered ground, grain farmers can spread it just before the ground is fully thawed, said Louise Lawrence, chief of the Maryland Department of Agriculture Resource Conservation Office.

"The intent was not to say to farmers you can't get an early jump on that," Lawrence said. "But if it's December or January, and the ground is frozen several inches, putting fertilizer on the ground will just sit on the snow and then run off."

Farmers such as Ron Leister of Hampstead are glad to hear that the regulations won't outlaw the March fertilizer on which his small grains depend.

"The best time to put fertilizer on small grains is when the ground is still frozen, so when the plants break dormancy, it's right there for them," said Leister, who has 700 acres of grain and hay near Hampstead.

Small grain -- wheat, barley and rye -- are planted in the fall, sprout like short, sparse grass, then spend the winter in dormancy.

In March, the ground is firm enough to hold tractor tires, Leister said. By next month, tires would tear up the ground and uproot young plants.

After the hearing tonight, the Maryland Department of Agriculture will continue to take written comments through Wednesday. The regulations are required by the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, passed by the General Assembly in response to a Pfiesteria outbreak in Eastern Shore waterways in 1997. Scientists believe runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen in fertilizer and manure might have fed the outbreak, and might contribute to algae blooms that choke out other aquatic life.

The regulations are to take effect next year.

This is the second round of hearings. Since last year's first round, members of an advisory committee have been working on minor changes and clarifications.

The law would fine farmers who fail to comply up to $2,000 for repeat violations.

Changes include:

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

* Allowing tissue samples of plants and soil testing to determine phosphorus levels. Previously, 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.

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