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Md. farmers are wrongly blamed for bay troubles [Commentary]

In a commentary published March 6 in The Baltimore Sun, Why is O'Malley giving poultry polluters a free ride?, the authors, both of the Food & Water Watch organization, claim that the chicken companies operating on Maryland's Eastern Shore are the "bay's biggest polluters" and that they are getting a free ride on the backs of the taxpayers. Also, they claim that chicken manure, a heavily regulated and locally produced organic fertilizer, is the cause of "massive pollution" of the Chesapeake Bay. The facts speak otherwise.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency-approved December 2010 Maryland Watershed Implementation Plan, Eastern Shore chicken manure is responsible for just 6 percent of all the nitrogen from all sources throughout the state that is reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

According to data shared with legislators last month by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, all farm animal manure in Maryland, not just chicken manure, is responsible for just 23 percent of the phosphorus entering the bay from Maryland sources. Obviously the majority of nitrogen and phosphorus from Maryland sources is not coming from chicken manure.

The authors stated that "Maryland agriculture covers nearly 25 percent of the landmass feeding into the bay." Again, not correct. According to EPA data, Maryland agricultural land is less than 4 percent of all the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And EPA data show that the amount of watershed farmland is shrinking while developed land is growing.

The chicken companies do not own the manure. They do not own land to which it is applied. They do not control the environmental practices of the farm families who grow the chickens, and they do not control the farmland on which it is used. How can the chicken companies be responsible for something they neither own nor control?

Yes, phosphorus levels in our waters are higher than desired. In many instances, they are the result of scientifically-guided manure applications of decades ago. Water, and the phosphorus it may contain, moves slowly in our underground aquifers. New Delmarva Peninsula research by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates it may take decades for many water-quality management practices to achieve their full benefit due to the influence of groundwater.

The study shows that the age of groundwater going into the Chesapeake Bay from the Delmarva Peninsula ranges from less than a year to centuries, with median ages ranging from 20 to 40 years. In some areas of the peninsula, the groundwater discharging to streams is gradually mixing with waters dating back to the 1970s through the 1990s. This means "old" water subject to decades-old fertilizer practices is still reaching streams and ditches and water quality monitoring stations.

The take home message is that old practices are influencing water quality today, and today's better and newer on-farm practices may not show positive results for decades. Unlike phosphorus reducing practices such as sewage plant upgrades and bans on detergents where immediate responses are seen, practices involving land applications can take decades to show results.

Will a 5-cent per bird Chicken Tax help with water quality improvement? No. The expected $15 million raised annually by this tax on just five companies will fund the Maryland cover crop program, touted by many as the most effective on-farm best management practice, but the money will only be available to farmers who have used chicken manure as a fertilizer. This means farmers who never have used chicken manure will have no state assistance in getting cover crops planted. How will banning hundreds of Maryland farmers from an effective program help improve the bay?

Some in the environmental industry cite watershed-wide "data" to claim that the Maryland chicken industry and Maryland farmers need to be doing more. They conveniently overlook the Maryland-specific data that show that Maryland farmers are doing better than farmers in other jurisdictions. Very little of the water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay comes from Maryland's Eastern Shore, yet in the environmental industry publicity, we get lumped in with poorer performing jurisdictions throughout the watershed.

Maryland's chicken industry and farmers are making progress and will continue to do so. State policies and proposed state policies, such as the Chicken Tax, cannot be so unreasonable as to drive farm families off their lands. Fewer well managed farms and more commercial, residential, and industrial development will not improve Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Bill Satterfield is the executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. His email is satterfield@dpichicken.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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