State agriculture officials take pride in the fact that 95 percent of Maryland farmers have met requirements of the law and adopted nutrient-management plans designed to reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
But, because the goal is 100 percent, the Department of Agriculture is stepping up efforts to bring the remaining 300 farmers into compliance, issuing a warning to farmers last week about increased enforcement efforts to corral the stragglers.
The state is issuing fines, threatening higher penalties in the future and increasing the number of farm inspections.
As an indication of its more forceful approach, the department levied the maximum $350 fine against a Washington County livestock farmer in July.
Legislation passed in 1998 requires that farmers have plans in effect for controlling nutrient runoff from their fields.
The legislation was precipitated by toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997, which resulted in fish kills and the closing of parts of three Maryland waterways to recreational use.
The search for the origin of the outbreaks shifted attention to runoff of nutrients from farmers' fields.
Farmers argued that there was no scientific proof that the Pfiesteria outbreak was caused by runoff from their fields, and many were slow to comply with the new requirements.
Their resistance began to subside a few years ago, when former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. agreed that farmers had been unjustly blamed, and in 2004, the legislature passed nutrient-management regulations that were easier to comply with.
The big change in regulations was the removal of the right of inspectors to go on a farm without notice. Participation has since increased from about 55 percent to the current 95 percent.
But agriculture officials say it's time for full compliance.
"We are at the point where a stronger level of enforcement is necessary to assure that all farmers are complying and the environmental objectives of the law are met," said Roger L. Richardson, the state agriculture secretary.
Only two farmers have been fined, but more could be in the future.
"While we don't enjoy issuing penalties, as a regulatory agency it is our responsibility to make sure that we do everything we can to see that laws are followed," Richardson said. "It is time and only fair to the thousands of farmers who are in compliance with the law that we actively pursue violators to the nutrient-management laws."
The department said its nutrient-management specialists will inspect about 600 farms this year, a 76 percent increase over last year.
The Nutrient Management Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the secretary on programs and policy related to the 1998 law, the Water Quality Improvement Act, recently endorsed the department proposal to amend the law to allow for higher fines and penalties. Department officials said it's too early to say what the increased fines would be.
Nutrient-management plans help farmers manage nutrients and animal waste more efficiently to protect the quality of streams, rivers and the bay. All farmers grossing $2,500 a year or more, or livestock producers with 8,000 pounds or more of live animal weight, are required to have plans to control nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.
The weight limit probably would include farms with eight cows or horses, or a flock of about 2,000 chickens.
The 95 percent of the farmers in compliance with the law work 97 percent of the state's 1.3 million acres of cropland.
But Farmers showed a willingness to help the bay before the passage of the water quality improvement act.
Since 1985, they have spent more than $11 million to match about $90 million in state water-quality cost-share funds to install more than 21,000 best-management practices.
This included the construction of manure storage pits and watering troughs and fencing to keep livestock out of streams.
In April, the Delaware Department of Agriculture reported that 99 percent of its farms, covering 435,291 acres, were in compliance with that state's nutrient-management laws.