Many farms won't meet nutrients-plan deadline

Management-of-runoff document due Dec. 31, according to Md. law

October 04, 2001|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

At least 30 percent of the farms in Maryland are not expected to meet the requirements of a law stipulating they have nutrient management plans by the end of the year, agriculture officials said yesterday.

"If you count all the mom-and-pop operations and all of the horse farms, my guess is that between 30 and 40 percent of farms will not meet the deadline," said Steve Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization, which serves 14,000 families.

Emily Wilson, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, called the 40 percent estimate "very conservative" and said it could be considerably higher, based on its survey of farmers last month.

The university's Cooperative Extension office has a staff of certified nutrient management consultants that write plans for farmers free of charge.

As part of the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1988, all farms with a gross annual income of $2,500 are required to have plans to control the runoff of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay.

The General Assembly approved the legislation after farm runoff was suspected of causing outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997, which resulted in the closing of portions of three Maryland waterways, triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood and disrupted the state tourism industry.

The regulations require farmers to sign up for a plan by the end of this month. They can either register with Cooperative Extension or with a private consultant. The cost of hiring a private consultant is estimated to range between $4 and $7 an acre.

Farmers must have their plans written by Dec. 31 and are required to implement them no later than Dec. 31, 2002.

Wilson said that so far only about 2,500 of the state's 13,000 farms have registered with Cooperative Extension. But that is still more than the university can handle.

She said the university will be unable to process the applications of more than 1,000 farms in time to meet the deadline.

"We are doing the best we can with our limited resources," said Wilson. She said the university is hindered by a lack of money. It is authorized to hire 30 consultants, she added, but it has been unable to retain them because of low salaries.

"We hire people, they work for us for a couple of months, and then find similar jobs with higher salaries," said Wilson. The university has about 25 consultants whose salaries are in the low to mid-$20,000 range, she said.

Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said he could not tell how many farmers have signed up to have plans written, but only 647 plans have been submitted to the department, covering 100,201 of the state's nearly 2 million acres of farmland.

Weber outlined the problem with the state's nutrient management laws in a lengthy letter mailed to members of the General Assembly this week.

In the letter, he called the Water Quality Act a "regulatory monster," and said scientists have not been able to determine the source of the "fluke outbreak of Pfiesteria in 1997 [that] has not been repeated."

He criticized the state for cutting funding - from $750,000 a year to $216,000 - to help farmers pay for plans, and said many farmers still don't know they are required to have the plans.

Powell said that farmers who can show "good-faith efforts" to meet the deadline for having a plan written can be excused from penalties. He said they can fill out a form, signed by a certified consultant, stating there is not time to complete a plan before the deadline.

He said farmers who don't have a written plan deadline could face a $250 fine. The maximum fine for not implementing a plan on time is capped at $2,000 a year.

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