State presses farmers to file plans on nutrients

Effort part of '98 law to help clean up bay

April 21, 2006|By CHRIS EMERY | CHRIS EMERY,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

NEW WINDSOR -- Parker Smith likes to sit in the rocking chair on his porch and watch rainstorms pass over the Carroll County valley his family has farmed, mostly undisturbed, for seven generations. What he dislikes are the repercussions of where the rain ends up.

From 1998 until January of this year, Smith adamantly refused to participate in a Maryland Department of Agriculture program intended to reduce the amount of excess nutrients - specifically nitrogen and phosphorus - that drain into the Chesapeake Bay from his and others farms in the state.

"Farming is a very individual, private and proud business," Smith said, as he prepared his tractor and equipment to plant corn on some of the 1,000 acres he farms. "How much fertilizer I put on my fields has always been my business."

But now, state officials have begun pressuring resistant farmers like Smith to file their nutrient management plans with the Department of Agriculture, warning them that they could be hauled into court and fined.

Smith finally relented in January when he was told he could eventually be fined up to $10,000 a day if he continued to operate his farm without a filing a plan.

"I can't afford that kind of fine," he said. "I want to keep farming, and I want my sons to be able to farm."

In snubbing the program, which requires farmers to tell the state how much fertilizer they plan to put on each field and how they dispose of excess animal manure, Smith had plenty of company.

As of Feb. 28, more than one-third of the 8,259 Maryland farms required by law to file nutrient management plans with the state had yet to do so, according to Department of Agriculture records.

To bring more farms into compliance, the nutrient management program began to ramp up its enforcement efforts in July, according to Douglas Scott, the assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture's Office of Resource Conservation.

Scott said state officials have been contacting recalcitrant farmers to persuade them to file a plan. Those who continue to refuse after they receive warning letters could be fined. Scott said that as of mid-March the program had charged only two farmers with breaking the law and that neither of them had paid a fine.

"I know the law was passed in 1998 and this is 2006, but we are still in the infancy of our enforcement efforts," he said in an interview at his office in Annapolis. "We operate with a fairly thin staff ... about 10 people trying to regulate 8,259 operations."

Scott, who raised grain and chickens in Dorchester County for 25 years before going to work for the department, also said state officials were trying to avoid rekindling the outrage that spread through the farming community when the law was passed. The law stemmed from a 1997 toxic outbreak of the microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida in a bay tributary, which was blamed on phosphorus runoff from farms.

Scott said that farmers were reluctant to share details about how they apply fertilizers, because doing so is "kind of like Coca-Cola giving their recipe away."

Parker Smith said he was insulted when the government decided to make the program mandatory. He said that before 1998 he participated in the voluntary nutrient management program, but decided he would rather pay a fine than submit to what he saw as an overbearing attempt to tell farmers how to farm.

"If they had stayed educational it would have been much better accepted," he said. "I doubt that it has increased education for what the cost was."

Thomas Simpson, a University of Maryland expert on the relationship between policy and science in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, said Maryland's attempt to manage nutrient runoff from farms was the first of its kind. Instituting the program and dealing with the fallout from the farm community was bound to be a slow process, he said.

"It didn't taste very good once we got to doing it," he said. "Nobody had the stomach to make good people, who are already struggling, do something they didn't want to do."

But he also said agricultural runoff needs to be "drastically" reduced, through improved nutrient-management practices and new technologies, if the bay is to recover.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, a multistate, federal partnership to restore the bay, estimates that about 40 percent of excess nutrients in the bay come from agricultural runoff. Once a farm implements a management plan, its nutrient runoff tends to drop by about 24 percent, the program estimates.

Simpson said nutrient levels at the mouths of rivers flowing into the bay have improved some in recent decades, but that there has been little improvement farther out in the bay.

"We don't really know how much change resulted due to the nutrient management plans," he said. "The weakness is that we don't really know if the plans are actually implemented or changing farming practices."

Simpson also warned, however, that farms are not the only source of harmful nutrients in the bay watershed. He said the loss of farmland to urban development also threatens the bay because car exhaust, sewage and storm water runoff all contain nutrients.

Maryland has lost about 6 percent - or 140,000 acres - of its farmland since 1998, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. "Farms managed environmentally clearly produce less nutrients than developed areas," Simpson said. "If we did all the things we know how to do, farms would be much better than developments."

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