FIREWORKS, OR at least a lot of steam, might have been expected to burst forth this week when hundreds of Maryland farmers were given the chance to rewrite the pollution control regulations rigidly and hastily imposed upon them five years ago, mostly over their objections. What emerged instead was a plea for a change in tone; an acknowledgement that most farmers are not greedy or careless polluters who must be policed into submission, but lovers of the environment that feeds them who just need practical help with protecting it.
Sure, some of those who attended Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "Nutrient Management Summit" in Wye Mills on Tuesday probably hope the Republican governor will find a way to summarily dump the greenie regulations of his predecessor. But that's not the way the Ehrlich administration seems headed, nor is it what most of the farmers at the summit were seeking.
Instead, the summit participants came up with a lot of good ideas, many of them already in place in Delaware, for making the regulations more effective. That should be the goal: nutrient management regulations that are reasonably easy to comply with, but still achieve their purpose of substantially stemming the flow of pollutants that wash into the Chesapeake Bay, turning parts of it into a dead zone.
For example, instead of filing management plans with the state at the beginning of each season, perhaps the plans should be kept on the farms where they can be adjusted as weather and other circumstances dictate. But summary statements would be filed with the state at the end of each year to report how much fertilizer was used, crop yields and other details. Such statements serve in Delaware as the primary tool to assess how the program is working.
A major source of the problem is excess chicken poop, the product of the 500 million birds grown annually on the Eastern Shore. Those chickens and the grain they eat are the mainstay of the region's economy. Their manure has value, too, as a fertilizer. But there's too much of it on the Delmarva Peninsula to be absorbed by the land there.
Both Maryland and Delaware help pay the cost of transporting chicken manure to farms elsewhere that can use it; more such help may be required. Farmers are also seeking additional help in storing manure and in planting cover crops that prevent soil erosion - another worthy goal.
Farmers, by their very existence, play a critical part in protecting the bay because they conserve land that might otherwise be gobbled by strip malls and housing developments. They, too, are an endangered species that deserves protection.
But the manure regulations can't be voluntary, as some farmers would prefer, or the bay is doomed. Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley says he hopes to simplify the rules and offer incentives to help farmers comply. But he knows he's going to need a few sticks at the ready to go with those carrots. Even in farm-friendly Delaware, they've got sticks.