Eastern Shore farmer gets tough inspection on nutrient plan

ON THE FARM

November 04, 2007|By TED SHELSBY

QUEEN ANNE -- Dick Messix, who farms about 430 acres near this Eastern Shore town,

passed his first nutrient management inspection last week with flying colors.

But it was not a lot of fun.

As a state inspector plowed though Messix's records looking for any violation of pollution laws, the state attorney general and his top environmental assistant were sitting at the table.

"Yeah, I was nervous," Messix said after the two-hour session last week. "My stomach was turning. I had a good case of the butterflies."

However, Messix said he took some consolation from the fact that he believed his operation is above board.

"I felt like my records were in order," he said. "I have been trying to do the right thing. I felt like I had all the information required, but you never know."

Messix grows corn, wheat and soybeans. He also has two large chicken houses that turn out 200,000 roasters a year under contract with Perdue Farms Inc.

It is the manure produced by the chickens that concerns the state. Farmers use manure as fertilizer because it contains nitrogen and phosphorus that help crops grow. But the nutrients also can cause water pollution.

Legislation passed in 1998 requires farmers to have management plans for controlling nutrient runoff from their fields.

The legislation was precipitated by toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997, which resulted in fish kills, the closing of parts of three Maryland rivers to recreational use, and raised questions about the safety of Maryland seafood.

The inspection at Messix's farm Wednesday was a chance to demonstrate for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler how nutrient management laws work and are enforced.

By applying only the amount of manure recommended by a nutrient management specialist, Messix has limited his use of nitrogen and phosphorus to amounts absorbed by his field crops.

"We are not all bad guys," Messix said after the inspection. "We are trying to make a living like everybody else. We are trying to do the right thing. I think I'm speaking for the vast majority of the farmers out there."

Farmers in general are under-appreciated for their contributions to nation's standard of living and for their conservation efforts, Messix said.

"A lot of people sit down to the dinner table thinking their food comes from the Giant or Safeway," he said. "It comes from the farm. We need doctors, policemen and firefighters in this country, but we also need farmers."

During the inspection, Gansler expressed skepticism over the effectiveness of Maryland's management laws and how they are enforced.

He questioned whether Messix's farm was typical of others in the state, and how inspectors could tell that Messix's records accurately reflected what he did in the field. Messix pointed out that his farm is subjected to soil testing every year.

"These tests will show if I'm putting too much nutrients on the ground," he said. "There's no hanky-panky here. The soil is tested by the University of Maryland or independent laboratories."

The attorney general conceded that farms are less of a pollution threat than either housing or commercial developments, but he expressed doubt that the state's enforcement of nutrient management laws are adequate to protect the bay. He pointed out that only two of the 6,200 farms in Maryland required to have nutrient management plan have been fined for noncompliance.

Gansler also is uncomfortable that only about 10 percent of the state's farms are inspected each year and suggested that a farmer's records should be public record.

"If they have nothing to hide, why not make these records public?" he said. "There is a difference in farms that have poultry and those that don't. [Those with poultry] should be looked at differently." The state's top lawyer said his office is responsible for protecting the environment as well as citizens. He said he did not know whether he would be suggesting new poultry farm regulations.

Gansler said "Mr. Messix's concern about the environment and knowledge of the land and nutrient management was very impressive." He questioned, how- ever, whether Messix is typical of other farmers.

Messix's response: "Most farmers are trying to do the right thing. Believe me."

According to the state Department of Agriculture, 95 percent of the farms required to have nutrient management plans are in compliance. These farms cover about 97 percent of the farmland in Maryland.

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