EASTON - More than 300 growers, company executives, rural politicians and farm bureau officials turned out last night to criticize the Maryland Department of the Environment over proposed regulations for getting rid of excess chicken manure.
They said the proposals would further damage an industry under pressure from declining exports and the lowest poultry prices in 20 years.
The new rules that would hold giant poultry processors like Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc. responsible for helping growers dispose of litter - a mixture of sawdust and manure - would ruin the independence of thousands of small family farmers who produce more than 300 million chickens a year on Maryland's Eastern Shore, many in attendance said.
The regulatory changes, known as "co-permitting," would place poultry processors in the role of enforcers over their growers, who work as independent contractors, said Allen Davis, who farms 2,000 acres in Kent and Cecil counties and raises roaster chickens for Allen Family Foods Inc.
"It's unnecessary. The only purpose of co-permitting is to further harass the poultry grower," Davis said. "It is my hope that we'll see rational minds prevail."
Industry officials said the proposals would also put Maryland farmers in a competitive vise, caught between less-stringent regulation in neighboring counties in Virginia and Delaware.
Others complained that the state is violating the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, which gave farmers time to come up with nutrient management plans to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution.
"We have yet to hear from MDE why they need this," said Steve Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "We thought we had an agreement in 1998, and given time and resources, we can address this problem."
Many in the packed Easton High School auditorium praised Delaware officials, who reached a voluntary compliance agreement with the major processing companies on Jan. 9. Maryland should follow suit, said Caroline County Commissioner John Cole.
"We have 300 years of uninterrupted history of commercial agriculture in Caroline County, and that's being threatened," Cole said.
Chicken farmers, who spread the waste from their birds on their fields for fertilizer, were drawn to the meeting - the first of three hearings on the renewal of wastewater treatment permits for Perdue, Allen and Tyson Foods Inc. - by a letter from Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., an industry lobbying group. Full-page ads in local newspapers also warned that the regulations threaten "the independence of family farms."
MDE proposed the regulations, part of an effort to clean up polluted Eastern Shore creeks and rivers, after negotiations with the poultry industry failed. Poultry processors offered a proposal in which they would help farmers deal with poultry waste without an enforcement mechanism. State officials wanted a way to force the processors to help.
Agricultural runoff has been blamed for fouling streams, damaging fish and plant life in the bay and its Eastern Shore tributaries and potentially leading to outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida, including one in 1997 that forced the closure of the Pocomoke River.