AS WE APPROACH the midpoint in Maryland's years-long effort to bring poultry pollution under control, the gloom is beginning to lift.
Fear was rampant when the battle began in 1997, in the wake of nationwide publicity about Eastern Shore outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, "the cell from hell." Some people wondered if Maryland seafood was safe to eat. (It was.) Others wondered if the entire Chesapeake Bay was a health hazard. (It wasn't.)
Still others feared that the cure for Pfiesteria would be worse than the disease - that it would cost so much to clean up the farm pollution that seemed to trigger the outbreaks that Eastern Shore agriculture would be regulated out of existence. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Republican congressman from the Eastern Shore, warned that new restrictions on farmers' use of fertilizer would cause "agriculture to crumble."
It hasn't. At least, not yet.
After a long respite from major Pfiesteria outbreaks, fear of the lethal algae has gone dormant. But the state is still moving as fast as any in the nation to clean up polluted farm runoff, which harms the bay in a host of other ways.
Nearly three years after Maryland became the first state to pass a law regulating farm fertilizer as a pollutant - and four years before the law's full effects kick in - the leaders of Delmarva's poultry industry no longer talk about shifting operations to other states with less stringent laws.
"We've got tremendous assets in the state of Maryland," says Jim Perdue, chairman of Salisbury-based Perdue Farms. "We will do whatever we have to do to help make the industry strong here in Maryland."
In fact, Perdue and other entrepreneurs claim they are ready to turn pollution into profits, with new technologies that can turn poultry manure into electric power or highly marketable organic fertilizer.
That's good news for the Chesapeake Bay. Science suggests that as less manure is spread on farmland, smaller amounts of two troublesome pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, will reach the bay. But it is not at all clear that it is good news for the Eastern Shore's family farmers - the ones who raise most of Delmarva's 600 million chickens, and grow most of the grain those chickens eat.
Grain farmers fear they will end up competing with other users for the manure. And if they lose, the extra costs of commercial fertilizer - about $25 to $30 an acre - could make a crucial difference. Already, farmers are caught in a bind: Their costs for land and equipment have increased roughly tenfold over the past 30 years, while crop prices have stayed essentially unchanged.
"The manure is a valuable part of a grain farming operation. It's an important asset at a time when farm margins are very thin," says Kenneth Bounds, vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit and the past president of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, a trade group. "There are a lot of people who just can't absorb any new costs."
Chicken growers are more worried about another change on the horizon: a move by the Maryland Department of the Environment to hold three of the state's biggest poultry-processing plants liable for the disposal of any excess chicken manure that cannot safely be applied to the land as fertilizer.
The big companies, or "integrators," supply their contract growers with everything from chicks to feed and medicine, then haul the fattened birds away for slaughter. Until now it has been up to the growers to get rid of the manure.
But the new permits, scheduled to go into effect early next year, require the companies to help their growers dispose of the manure in a nonpolluting way, or face fines of $10,000 a day.
Maryland is the first state in the nation to impose such a requirement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to impose a similar requirement nationwide, but it is not clear whether the incoming Bush administration will go ahead with the new regulation.
No one is sure what the ripple effects of Maryland's latest action will be. Bounds, a strong advocate for the industry's point of view, thinks the integrators will rewrite their poultry-raising contracts, passing some of the liability back to the growers.
"The companies are going to have to safeguard themselves in some fashion because of the potential for huge fines," he says.
Chicken grower David Barnes, a 16-year veteran of the business, puts it more bluntly: "It just gives them another hammer to hold over our heads."
Barnes, 53, owns three farms in Willets that raise 90,000 chickens at a time under contract to Perdue and Mountaire Farms. He has tried, with limited success, to organize other growers to fight an imbalance of power between the integrators and the growers.