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In Bachmans Valley, a plague of flies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It seemed like the perfect place to build a family. So in March, Cyndy Rosenbloom, who expects to give birth this week, and her husband moved from Reisterstown into a larger house on 1 3/4 acres in Carroll County's Bachmans Valley.

But as winter melted into spring, the flies came.

Now, with the county health officer saying that some of these pests may bite, the mother-to-be prepares to drape a net over her baby's crib to keep out the flies. And to guard against insecticides that neighbors or farmers may be using to battle the flies, she is buying bottled water.

"I'm getting ready to have a baby, and I'm worried about health safety," Ms. Rosenbloom says. "I can't walk out to the vehicle in my driveway without the flies coming. It's frightening."

Ms. Rosenbloom is one of dozens of people who live in the vicinity of County Fair Farms, in the 600 block of Bachmans Valley Road, and the Mullinix egg farm, in the 500 block of Saw Mill Road.

Almost without exception, those residing within two miles of either farm complain that poultry manure is producing swarms of flies for the third straight summer that have made them prisoners in their own homes.

Carl Dwyer, 39, who has lived in the area for 17 years, says he can no longer use the outdoor barbecue he built for summer cookouts.

Linda Lewis has been unable to open the horse training business she says she planned to start at her farm.

Joe Wood says the pests forced him to cancel the last two annual picnics for Carroll County's chapter of the American Wine Society, an event of which he had been host for the past decade at his home on John Owings Road.

"I just can't take the flies anymore," says James Finley, a neighbor of Mr. Wood's on John Owings Road, less than a mile from County Fair. "This past weekend, I had to get out of town for a few days."

When he's not fleeing from the swarms, Mr. Finley has been helping to organize residents. At a meeting of area residents Tuesday night, 42 signed a petition pressing local officials to respond to the fly problem.

Few county officials believe that they will be able to reduce the number of flies in this or future summers. That's largely because the state's nuisance abatement law limits the maximum fine that may be imposed on farms to $50 -- even if residents can prove in court that community life has been disturbed.

"The government is totally dependent on the cooperation of the farms," says county Health Officer Janet W. Neslen.

Both residents and the farms are stressing the need for negotiation and cooperation. But the fly issue pits recent arrivals from the Baltimore area, in search of quiet open space, against veteran farmers such as George Mullinix, who owns the egg farm bearing his name.

"The suburbs are creeping out into what used to be rural land," says Larry Pickens, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who has worked with Mr. Mullinix on fighting flies. "That's really what the problem is here."

Since visits last month to the area by Mr. Pickens and state officials, some farm neighbors have reported a slight decline in the fly population.

Still, some residents have fallen into the habit of brushing their hands in front of their faces -- even when there are no flies to shoo away.

Rhetoric goes on

The recent improvement has yet to dull the rhetoric, with more than one resident characterizing this as a crisis of "biblical proportions." In the book of Exodus, flies were the fourth plague that God sent into Egypt when the Pharaoh wouldn't let the Hebrew people go.

County Fair and Mullinix are already one step up on the Pharaoh, who saw his country destroyed before he relented.

Owners of both farms admit that they spread uncomposted manure in the fields during the wet months of early spring, but they maintain the amount spread was minimal and suggest that hot, wet weather is the primary cause of the flies.

Mr. Mullinix's explanation has thus far fared better than that of Donald Lippy, who co-owns County Fair with three partners.

Federal officials, including Mr. Pickens, have gone so far as to suggest that Mr. Lippy's farm, which began operations two years ago this month, is the one responsible for the increase in flies over the past two summers.

"There are flies here. There's no doubt the number is more than the acceptable [level]," Mr. Lippy says as flies buzz around a 580-foot-long pile of manure in the basement of one of his chicken houses. "But we're learning how to straighten it out."

Insect predators used

Mr. Lippy says his farm is stepping up its use of insect predators to eat flies in the manure piles, and it is building drainage ditches around the chicken houses to prevent manure from becoming wet again. New precautions, he says, should prevent a fly outbreak from occurring next summer.

"Of course," he sighs, "that's what I said when we had the problem last year."

Mr. Lippy says he was encouraged by statements made by Dr. William F. Gimpel, a Maryland Department of Agriculture official who visited County Fair Farms last week. Dr. Gimpel predicted that residents "shouldn't have a fly problem" by the end of summer.

But residents and some officials are not convinced. A frustrated U.S. Department of Agriculture has largely given up on prevention for this year and instead recommended that traps be deployed to kill flies before they can bother the neighbors.

There are indications that these traps may be catching another type of fly. Dr. Neslen, the county health officer, says she is investigating complaints that some residents have recently developed medical problems from fly bites.

"There are things in this outbreak we haven't seen before," she says. "We now have, I believe, a biting fly."

For example, Debbie Schultz, a nurse who lives near County Fair, says she missed 10 days of work after a fly bite became swollen and had to be drained.

Irene Remley says her 86-year-old husband, Carroll, has twice gone to the Carroll County General Hospital emergency room after bites. Now he takes medication.

But Dr. Neslen says the law offers the county few ways to protect residents. "There's no licensing, no sanctioning, no checks on these [farm] companies," she says.

For almost 15 years, the county has lobbied the state government for a change in the law. But state politicians have resisted reform, Dr. Neslen and other advocates say.

Bill introduced

This year, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene introduced a bill in the state Senate to raise the maximum fine for nuisance abatement from $50 to $1,000, according to Richard A. Proctor, director of governmental affairs for the health department.

But Senate committee members say that when objections were raised, the idea was sent back to the health department for further consideration.

"I know there was a general feeling among most legislators that with the economy depressed, it was a bad time to raise fines on farmers," says state Sen. Bernie Fowler, a Calvert County Democrat who opposed the plan. "The farmers for the most part have been picked on. We need to encourage farmers, not discourage them."

The state health department will have to wait at least until next year before it can bring another bill to the legislature. But by then, the fly situation could become worse.

Mr. Pickens says he is particularly worried because the pests in Bachmans Valley have become 150 times more resistant to VTC insecticides over the past five years, and many of these stronger flies are fanning out along Bachmans Valley Road east and west.

Mr. Pickens still believes the flies can eventually be controlled. But some residents say that, even if it means selling their property at a loss, they may not stay that long.

"Reisterstown wasn't great, and we didn't have this beautiful house," says Ms. Rosenbloom. "But after this, my husband is ready to go back."

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