The November 30 op-ed "Maryland wants to weaken winter manure rules" does not provide readers with the facts about the Maryland Department of Agriculture's proposed changes to state nutrient management regulations. These changes will balance environmental protections and maintain sustainable soil health within the realities of farming and Mother Nature. When working around unknown conditions — like weather — it's difficult to develop a one-size fits all solution.
Weather conditions are cited as one of the main reasons for sewer overflows, which according to Maryland Department of Environment 2016 overflow reports accounted for more than 117 million gallons of sewage directly entering our waterways.
The proposal adds a an emergency provision during winter restrictions to allow the department to work with farmers to prevent an overflow from a storage structure by following procedures to minimize impact and prevent runoff into waterways. This exemption does not apply to biosolids or food waste. It is only for on-farm generated manure which the farmer cannot store due to extraordinary circumstances.
Farmers have been taking action to comply with the manure storage regulations. Since 2012, dairy farmers have constructed 58 waste storage structures, and 14 are underway. Livestock farmers have applied to construct an additional 394 manure storage facilities. Storage structures are only one of many best management practices that state soil conservation districts staff handle, and there is currently a backlog. Therefore, an emergency provision is still needed for those farms that have some storage and have shown intent but have not yet been able to build additional facilities.
The department strengthened the regulations by adding a provision that farmers cannot ever apply manure if the ground is frozen or snow covered and requiring 100-foot setbacks from surface water for any spreading during the winter.
Additional proposed changes include:
•Removing the incorporation requirement for spring and fall manure spreading. National Resources Conservation Service studies show soil health is improved with little or no soil disturbance other than planting.
•Extending the fall spreading dates to Sept. 10-Dec. 15 and eliminating the east and west of the bay distinction to provide consistency across the State and with average weather conditions. New winter dates will be Dec. 16-March 1.
We discussed the proposed changes at the Nutrient Management Advisory Committee and Phosphorus Management Tool Advisory Committee meetings over the summer, as well as several dairy workshops and one-on-one meetings with environmental organizations. The consensus from the meetings is that these are reasonable changes that account for the variability in weather conditions across our state and provide sustainable soil health practice options for farmers while maintaining environmental protections.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the significant progress that has been made already and that Maryland agriculture is on track to meet its 2017 water quality goals. These proposed changes will not impact our progress.
Maryland farmers continue to plant record cover crop acreage, which is one of the most cost-effective ways to keep nitrogen out of ground water and the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, the state invested $31.2 million in grants last year for farmers to install 2,440 conservation projects that control soil erosion, reduce nutrient runoff and protect water quality in streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Hogan administration's Maryland Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative has also been instrumental in helping farmers reduce agricultural phosphorus and improve water quality. Last year alone, Maryland farmers moved 213,151 tons of manure away from farm fields with high soil phosphorus levels — a nearly 40 percent increase over last year's transport figures. And since 2014, the state has issued $5.4 million in grants through the Animal Waste Technology Fund to support new on-farm manure management technologies.
Many people are concerned about the health of the Chesapeake Bay — none more so than farmers, who rely on our land and water to grow food and fiber for us all.
Joe Bartenfelder, Annapolis
The writer is secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.