Groups say hog-farm limits would be breath of fresh air

Efforts to curb industry have had mixed success

March 21, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

ROCKY RIDGE -- The smell from Rodney G. Harbaugh's hog farm hasn't been so bad lately, his neighbors say. But there are good days and bad days, and the bad days are pretty awful.

"Sometimes, it's horrible," says Karen Kuhn, whose two-story colonial house is less than a mile from the Frederick County barns that hold Harbaugh's hogs. "It depends on which way the wind blows."

Controversy over Harbaugh's hogs combined with growing concerns over large lot feeding operations elsewhere in Maryland and reports of hog-farm related environmental disasters in North Carolina have led to efforts put the brakes on the swine industry here.

A bill to put a five-year moratorium on new hog farms in Maryland died in the House Environmental Matters Committee over the weekend, but last week the Frederick County Commissioners extended by six months a moratorium on new hog farms there.

A delegation of Carroll County residents, faced with a farmer's plans plans to raise 2,000 hogs near an exclusive Westminster subdivision, tried unsuccessfully to get its commissioners to place a moratorium on hog farms with more than 250 animals.

Del. Dan Morhaim, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the statewide moratorium bill, says he'll retool it and bring it back next year.

"Things that new, that different often don't pass the first year," Morhaim said yesterday.

North Carolina's swine industry exploded in the 1990s until there were more hogs -- 7 million -- than people in 1995 and nearly 10 million hogs by 1997, the latest year for which figures are available. A single spill from a hog waste lagoon in 1995 dumped 22 million gallons of waste into the Neuse River, killing millions of fish.

Hog waste is among the nutrients in water that scientists say lead to harmful algal blooms and outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, which killed fish in the Pocomoke river on the Eastern Shore in 1997.

Harbaugh, who has been wrangling with the state Department of the Environment over wastewater discharge permits, has one of three large lot feeding operations in Maryland. The others are in Kent County on the Eastern Shore, and in the Frederick County community of Foxville, where a farmer raises 2,000 hogs.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said last summer he would appoint a task force to study the economic and environmental impacts of large, factory-style hog farms in Maryland. But the task force has not been appointed yet, says Don Vandry, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

"There are some differing views on what the committee ought to do," Vandry said. "We're still working on the structure of the committee."

Morhaim's bill would have limited extension of existing hog farms to 250 hogs and prohibited new swine operations while the state departments of Natural Resources, Health and Mental Hygiene and Agriculture study the effects of large feed lot operations.

Other states have made similar moves. Officials in North Carolina imposed a moratorium on new hog raising operations after the 1995 spill. South Dakota voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 banning large corporations' involvement in new livestock operations. Officials at Maryland's Department of Agriculture say attempts to slow the hog industry are wasted.

"There are safeguards in place to address the issues," says Pat McMillan, assistant secretary of agriculture. "Why further burden the farmer? Maryland isn't in the same universe as North Carolina and is never gonna be."

Despite the three large-lot operations, Maryland's hog industry is declining. Farmers in the state had 65,000 hogs in December 1998, down 15,000 from 1995, according to Department of Agriculture figures. North Carolina's 10 million hogs are second only to Iowa in the United States in hog production.

Maryland's industry is unlikely to expand because "geographically, we don't have the area," McMillan said.

He says Harbaugh's efforts to get permits for his farm demonstrate that existing regulations are adequate.

"There's an operator who is finding that getting a permit is not a cakewalk," McMillan says.

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