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Carroll County News

Nutrient management regulations changing to help farmers reduce pollution to waterways

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has released proposed changes to the state's nutrient management regulations in an effort to prevent more nutrients from getting into local waterways and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. And the farming community isn't very happy about it.

In writing the new nutrient management regulations, the committee considered recommendations from Gov. Martin O'Malley's BayStat Science Panel as well as concerns raised by environmental, agricultural and municipal stakeholders, said Royden Powell, assistant secretary for resource conservation at MDA. The proposed changes will have a 45-day public comment period that ends Aug. 13, and the MDA is holding public information meetings on the changes around the state in July.

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The new regulations are designed to help Maryland meet nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals spelled out in its Watershed Implementation Plan, or WIP, to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, Powell said. The goal of the WIP is to put limits, called total maximum daily loads, on how much of a certain pollutant can go into the bay or local waterways in a day without damaging consequences, into action.

"Ultimately, the bay can only receive so much pollutant and still be healthy, so the states are required to establish those levels and then come up with a plan to reduce the loading of those pollutants down to those tolerable levels," Powell said.

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That effort will impact all sectors of nutrient pollution, he said, including the wastewater treatment community, the development community with respect to stormwater management and septic systems, and the agricultural sectors.

The proposed regulations

The new regulations would require farmers to use more techniques that the state considers as best management practices on their farms, from planting cover crops after doing a fall application of manure, using fencing to keep livestock out of streams, and creating fertilizer-free buffer zones around streams. The regulations also would limit the times of year farmers can use fertilizers and manure, and require that organic materials be incorporated into the soil within 48 hours of application.

Nutrient management laws aren't new to the state, Powell said. Maryland passed the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998 requiring farmers to have nutrient management plans. The guidelines for writing a nutrient management plan were based on University of Maryland recommendations, he said, and applied to anyone with $2,500 or more of gross income from agriculture or eight animal units, with a unit being 1,000 pounds of live weight.

"As we continue to learn more about how nutrients behave in the environment, we continue to understand more about phosphorous and how phosphorous behaves," Powell said.

As research has revealed more about the behavior of phosphorous, one of the major types of nutrient pollution in the bay, the state now has better information to give farmers on how they can best use the nutrient and keep it from running off, wasting their resources and polluting the bay.

"At the same time, we have increased our focus on Chesapeake Bay restoration, and particularly with [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's] role in requiring states to develop TMDLs, and a plan by which these TMDLs can be met."

Farm community reactions

Farmers across the state are venting frustration over the proposed changes, said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, both over the specifics of the regulations, their doubt of the impact that these steps will really have on the bay, and the costs associated with them.

"I'm just hearing this huge level of frustration from the farm community over these [regulations] in combination with the new septic restrictions," she said.

"I've got farmers saying, 'They just stole 25 development rights from my farm with the septic restrictions, now they're telling me I've got to take 10 feet out of production at the edge of all my pastures and I've got to build a fence, and I now have to spend all my time figuring out what the exact time is for spreading manure,'" Connelly said.

It used to be that what farmers were doing to protect the bay went along with good farming practices, such as having a nutrient management plan and implementing a lot of the best management practices out there, she said.

"Now it feels like what they're asking us to do is contrary to what [farmers] do to grow food and feed the best country in the world," she said. "They're going to be spending more and more of their time trying to jump through the hoops for the window of opportunity to use their organic nutrients that they use on the farm. It's just making it more difficult and more costly."

Melvin Baile Jr., of New Windsor, said he believes the purpose of these regulations is not to protect the Chesapeake Bay but to eliminate livestock-based agriculture altogether.

"I'm not sure where this is coming from," he said. "I'm very frustrated."

Baile said that fertilizer costs are expensive - costing 10 times more than they did when his father started farming - and farmers use them as sparingly as possible to still produce a maximum yield.

Farmers don't need these regulations, he said, because they use common sense and good business practices to benefit their farms, their products and the environment. The new regulations are going to come with significant costs to the farmers, he said, which in turn will drive of the price of their products.

"Everybody wants to eat and they want to eat cheap, but I'm not sure that's going to happen," he said of one of the buffer requirements.

Joe Kuhn, of Woodbine ,said that small farmers in particular will be hurt the most by the new rules, especially if they have streams crossing their property that require large buffer strips or have livestock whose manure they use as fertilizer.

"Thirty-five feet is a lot of land to be taking out of production," he said.

New regulations would prohibit winter applications of fertilizers, including manure, with a cut off date of Nov. 1 on the Eastern Shore and Nov. 15 in counties west of the bay. That's going to lead to a need for increased manure storage for a lot of farmers, Connelly said, which can easily cost $200,000 to build.

"MDA is telling us funding is available, but when [farmers] go to the local [Farm Service Agency] offices, they're being told there's no money," Connelly said.

Funding needed for cost-sharing projects

Kuhn agrees that there won't be enough cost-share funding available, and the farmers will have to bear the majority of the burden on their own. And what's worse, they'll be putting this investment into something they disagree with and that others probably won't appreciate.

"We're doing a good job," Kuhn said. "The people that are really pushing this don't believe we've done anything, no matter what we do, and won't think we're doing anything, and we really are way ahead."

Already there is no money to help farmers update nutrient management plans, even though they're almost always the same from one year to another, Connelly said, but farmers still need to get them updated by a certified plan writer. That was another regulation that was supposed to be cost-shared for the farmers, she said.

But Powell is optimistic the state will have more funding available for farmers. With the state doubling the Bay Restoration Fund fee starting July 1 for households across the state, the MDA will receive double the funding as well, he said, to support programs to help farmers comply with the new regulations.

In addition, the state will be looking for federal assistance through the next Farm Bill, which had $188 million focused on the Chesapeake Bay watershed over the four years of the last Farm Bill.

"The Farm Bill is up for re-authorization and we're going to need to work hard to make sure that the dollars for the Chesapeake Bay are maintained in that federal funding opportunity," he said.

Connelly is still skeptical that there will be enough money to go around once all farmers in the state realize they may have to make some big changes on their farms to meet these new regulations, she said.

Sharing the burden

Farmers are also unconvinced that other sectors will be doing their part, particularly when the costs of actions needed to achieve the kind of nutrient pollution reductions that the WIPs are aiming for are taken into account.

MDA announced in February that Maryland farmers planted a record 429,818 acres of cover crops last fall as part of the state's cover crop program, an effort by the state to help farmers reduce their nutrient runoff. The 2011 cover crop planting was the largest in Maryland history and exceeded the state's 2013 Chesapeake Bay milestone goal by 21 percent, according to a press release by the MDA.

"The ag community reached 120 percent of our two-year goal doing [best management practices] on a voluntary basis, so we are doing more than our fair share right now," Connelly said. "We're the shining star out there right now of all the sectors that are doing good work to clean up the ay, and yet the state doesn't believe that we can continue along that path and so instead they're going to mandate [these actions]."

Powell said he is proud of Maryland's farmers for having come so far, but just because they are ahead of other sectors it doesn't mean they can stop progressing forward.

"The remaining work that they have to do is reduced by the work that they've done so far," he said. "They've moved the ball way down the field, so the distance to the goal line for them is much less than in some of these other sectors."

It's apparent that everyone is going to have to step up and do more for the state to reach its goals, he said. There are additional requirements for municipalities to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants. There are new stormwater requirements that municipalities are going to face as a result of their EPA permits. And municipalities will be facing higher standards as development takes place within their communities.

"Likewise, septic systems are on the radar both at the statewide level and in many county governments in terms of ordinances or requirements about how those systems are installed and maintained or operated," Powell said.

Everyone in the state is going to have to do their part, he said.

Unrealistic in current economy

With the country's economic situation, Connelly said it just isn't believable that homeowners will be forced to pay $67,000 to hook-up to community sewer systems instead of use septic tanks, as one county estimates its cost for the changes will be, or that there will be enough money to take care of all the wastewater treatment plants in the state.

"It just seems like we're in over our head here in Maryland in this effort to try and meet the goals that EPA has set for us on bay clean up," Connelly said. "The Clean Water Act never envisioned that everything should have to be done at such an economic consequence to either homeowners or business owners."

The Clean Water Act says the states have to make efforts toward cleaning up the bay or any other body of water, but it also anticipated balancing those goals with the economic impact, she said, and be enforced at a pace that made sense.

"It seems like we're going at breakneck speed at this point to meet these goals, and there's going to be a real harm to the folks living in the state trying to meet these goals," she said.

The state says it realizes that farmers may have questions and comments on the proposed regulations, and will hold four meetings around the state in July where they can address these issues.


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