Md., Del. getting a handle on farm runoff pollution


April 22, 2007|By TED SHELSBY

Maryland farmers are doing their part to reduce the pollution making its way into the Chesapeake Bay, but it could be argued that their counterparts in Delaware are doing better.

Ninety-four percent of the Maryland farms required to have nutrient management plans in place have met the requirements of the law, according to the state Department of Agriculture's annual report.

This brings 1.25 million acres of farmland into compliance with the state's Water Quality Improvement Act.

In Delaware, the numbers are even more impressive. That state reports that 99 percent of its farms, covering 435,291 acres, are in compliance.

"I applaud Delaware," said Douglas Scott, Maryland's assistant secretary of agriculture and head of the office of resource conservation. "They are doing a good job. Both states are doing a good job."

He pointed out, however, that 7,200 farms in Maryland are required to have nutrient management plans compared with about 2,000 in Delaware.

The Water Quality Improvement Act was passed by the General Assembly in 1998.

Fish kills

It was the result of fish kills in three Eastern Shore rivers the year before that closed portions of the waterways to recreational use, disrupted the state tourism industry and triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood.

The episode led to a requirement that farms have nutrient management plans in place to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus used on their fields. Both nutrients are found in fertilizer and in chicken manure, which many farmers used as fertilizer.

But farmers resented the law. They argued that there was no scientific proof that they were to blame for the fish kills.

Their resistance showed up in the state's statistics. Five years after passage of the water quality act, about 65 percent of the farmers had signed up for the mandatory program.

Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his agriculture secretary, Lewis R. Riley, seemed to understand the farmers' gripe. They agreed that farmers were unjustly blamed for the fish kill and moved for the adoption of more user-friendly nutrient management regulations in 2004.

The big change in the regulations was the removal of the right of inspectors to go on a farm without notice.

Most farmers saw the change as a moral victory and began falling in line, but not all of them. Scott said the department has fined 25 farmers for not implementing plans.

"Delaware learned from our mistakes," Scott said, looking back over the history of the water quality act.

In Maryland, nutrient management regulations apply to all farms with sales of $2,500 or more annually, along with those having 8,000 pounds or more of live animal weight. Scott said that would be a farm with eight cows or a like number of horses, or a flock of about 2,000 chickens.

Shipping manure

One of the ways farmers in both states meet the regulations is to ship excess manure away from their farms.

Last year, Maryland's manure transport program provided farmers with $380,700 in state grants to move 69,000 tons of manure to other areas, where it could be safely used as a fertilizer substitute.

Most of the chicken litter was transported to farms in other parts of Maryland, Scott said.

"A little bit went to Delaware and some went to Pennsylvania, where it was used by mushroom growers," he said.

About 30 percent of the litter goes to a recycling plant in Delaware operated by Perdue Farms Inc., Scott said. The manure, which looks like rabbit food, is processed, bagged and sold to gardeners as a fertilizer.

Last year, 77,724 tons of excess chicken litter was transported out of the poultry region, said William Rohrer Jr., administrator of Delaware's nutrient management programs.

More than 15,000 tons went to Pennsylvania mushroom farms. An additional 32,400 tons, or 42 percent of the litter shipped, went to Perdue's processing plant.

Farmers view chicken litter as an asset, not a waste product, Scott said, adding that brokers are moving into the business to match buyers with sellers.

Asked how long it would take for Maryland to reach full compliance, Scott said he was not sure that would ever happen.

"But if we stay in the mid-90s, we are doing a good job with the resources we have," he said.

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