Farmers find law a hard row to hoe

On The Bay

Accountability: The Maryland Water Quality Management Act of 1998 was well-intended but needs rethinking.

November 30, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"THE LAST 10 years, farming has not been very lucrative, but we felt we were doing what we were being asked to do for the environment, voluntarily; and then we were slapped with regulations that carry fines and enforcement, and it has not set well with us."

That's the view from Bobby Hutchinson, 51, who raises corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and hogs on 3,600 acres of northeastern Talbot County with his brothers, Richard and David.

You will be hearing lots of sentiment like that, not all so moderate, as a complicated and lengthy struggle to control agricultural pollution of the Chesapeake Bay flares anew in the approaching General Assembly session.

The immediate issue is that the first deadlines are kicking in at the end of this year for the Maryland Water Quality Management Act of 1998 - and only about 10 percent of the state's 13,000 farmers are likely to be in compliance.

The law is one of the nation's first to make each farm accountable for putting only as much manure and chemical fertilizer on the land as needed for crops. The legislature passed it in response to outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria in 1997, which sickened more than a dozen, closed parts of three Eastern Shore rivers and shook the regional seafood economy.

When scientists pursued suspected links between Pfiesteria and high levels of fertilizer in bay rivers, it proved embarrassing to state agricultural officials. They had no data to show whether farmers were following voluntary "nutrient management" plans that specified how much fertilizer they should spread. Further analysis made it clear that many farms were producing far more manure, mainly from chicken houses, than their crops could ever use.

Where was it going? Some probably was being shipped to farms that needed it. Some was undoubtedly dumped on land that couldn't use it, to run into rivers. There was no accountability.

Three years later, it's clear that the execution of what was a well-intended law to hold farmers accountable is a mess. Promised state funding to help farmers meet the accountability standards has fallen millions of dollars short. County agricultural offices that are supposed to help farmers comply are understaffed and backlogged.

It's likely some segments of the farm community and their legislators will see this as an opportunity to gut the law. That's a huge mistake. It would only defer the problem until the next pollution crisis. And if no crisis occurs, the bay's chronic problems with losses of oxygen and underwater grasses are clearly linked to farm fertilizer runoff (as well as to sewage treatment plants, air pollution from cars and industry and polluted urban storm-water runoff).

But it's also clear, after a morning with Bobby Hutchinson, that the law needs some serious rethinking in an attempt to bridge the gulf that separates farmers and Chesapeake Bay advocates.

It says something that he thinks it's "an absolutely terrible law" and plans to not sign a required section giving state inspectors the right to enter his farm for random compliance checks.

It says something because Hutchinson, by all accounts, is a farmer who's always tried to do right by the environment, who carefully manages his fertilizers and pesticides and who generously spends his time trading views with environmental interests.

Aside from the obvious need for the state to put its promised funding back into the law, he has a number of thoughts. He thinks the law ought to focus on the problem of farms with more manure than acres on which to spread it. The law covers almost every farm, though about 90 percent of crop and animal production comes from 25 percent of Maryland farms.

With relatively little manure production, Hutchinson mostly purchases commercial fertilizers. "And, like most farmers," he says, "I've cut them as much as I can without cutting my yields."

The delicate balance between fertilizers and yields - and profit or loss - is apparent as Hutchinson shows you his detailed farm accounts for the last two decades. A 12 percent to 15 percent difference in his per-acre harvest of corn at today's historically low prices can mean the difference between the three brothers losing or making tens of thousands of dollars.

It's why a farmer is skeptical of a wet-behind-the-ears government or university worker who advises him to try applying a little less fertilizer, he says. Such "nutrient management" positions are low-paid, with high turnover. He's seen five such managers in Talbot in four years, Hutchinson says.

The law, he says, micromanages more than makes sense for most farms. It requires updates of management practices "as they occur," which he says could just as well be done once each year.

Other requirements, such as filing your tax identification number with your fertilization plan for each field and signing the right-of-entry clause for inspectors, are irritating "more for the idea of it than the actuality," Hutchinson says.

There's more, and to their credit, environmental groups and state officials have been listening to Hutchinson and other farmers in meetings this summer in an attempt to avoid the proverbial "train wreck" with this vital law.

There's no way to make the farm community like becoming more regulated. But clearly ways exist to make this law work better for farmers and for the bay.

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