New rules could cost farms cash; Farmers, officials say state regulations on runoff to be costly; Inspections planned; Full legislation to be released soon for public comment


New regulations designed to reduce farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay will hit livestock and poultry growers the hardest and could cost them money by forcing them to buy special fertilizer, say farmers and state officials.

All Maryland farmers would have to keep better records of soil testing and fertilizer application, and state inspectors would visit a randomly selected number of them each year, officials say.

"I may have to truck this manure, at my expense, to Lord knows where," said Centreville poultry and grain farmer Daniel Shortall, who relies on his birds' waste to fertilize his cropland.

The new state regulations would probably keep him from using as much of his manure. The pollution linked to poultry waste and other fertilizers is suspected of triggering the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak in Maryland waters, which led to the new rules.

"If I have to haul my manure to be disposed of somewhere else and replace that with a commercial fertilizer, that could put us out of business," he said.

Shortall will know more within two months, when the regulations are to be released for public comment before becoming final.

Conservationists hope the rules -- more comprehensive than in any other state -- will keep fertilizer from running into the bay and feeding algae blooms that choke other aquatic life.

But many farmers say the research linking Pfiesteria outbreaks to farm runoff is new and not conclusive enough for a broad mandate that could have profound economic consequences for farmers.

"I believe that if the agricultural community knows there is a problem, voluntarily, we will do our best to amend that problem," said John Brinsfield, a grain and vegetable farmer who chairs the Dorchester Agriculture Awareness Committee, an independent group of about a half-dozen farmers.

In a letter they sent last week to lawmakers, these farmers say the legislation is premature until researchers know more.

"They are right that the information isn't complete," said Louise Lawrence, chairwoman of the Nutrient Management Advisory Committee and chief of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Resource Conservation Office. "But we will have to learn as we go along, and make adjustments. The technical manual can be updated."

She said the regulations are meant to be flexible and allow farmers to make changes as long as they document what they do.

Although farmers across Maryland have been making strides with voluntary management programs through the local extension offices, the rules would require everyone to comply -- even if it costs the farmer more money.

In one measure meant to offset the added burden, the state would help match farmers who can use more manure with farmers who have more than their soil can handle, Lawrence said.

In the diverse agricultural community that makes up the state's largest industry, farmers are wondering what the act would mean to their operations, their pocketbooks and their way of life.

They know generally what to expect: Livestock and poultry farmers would face the largest impact, because they would have to deal with the manure their animals produce even if they aren't allowed to spread it on their fields. Farmers are expecting a lot more paperwork, but they don't know how much more.

Lawrence said farmers practicing nutrient management -- and a great many already are -- probably would not have to do much more paperwork.

"It's a business, and you would expect people to keep some records, but some don't," she said. Farmers who rely on "bits of paper here and there" will have to change their ways, she said.

The regulations will address how much and what kind of manure or other fertilizers farmers can spread on their fields. They will address how livestock and poultry farmers use the manure their animals produce, and it might mean greater expenses for them in storage or disposal, Lawrence said.

Checking records

She said inspectors would check farmers' records. The law requires inspectors to give notice before the visit.

They would go further, such as requesting soil samples or other documentation, if anything looks suspicious.

Each year, a certain number of farms would be selected at random for inspection. Lawrence said no set interval exists, but the state won't check a farm two years in a row unless a problem is found at that farm.

The biggest financial blow, Lawrence said, could be to poultry or other livestock farmers who might no longer be able to use as much of their animals' manure as they have been using, because of an overabundance of nitrogen or phosphorus in their soil.

A farmer who can't use his free phosphorus-laden chicken manure because too much phosphorus is in the soil might have to buy a fertilizer that doesn't contain phosphorus. He would have to find a way of disposing of the manure he isn't allowed to spread.

'The biggest hit'

"I think the Eastern Shore is going to take the biggest hit, not just in the state, but in the whole country, because of the watershed we're in" between the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay, Shortall said.

The regulations are written but await staff and legal review before being released within two months, Lawrence said. They are the result of legislation passed last spring in response to an outbreak of Pfiesteria in Maryland waters.

The point of the legislation, the Water Quality Act of 1998, is to keep nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients -- found in manure and commercial fertilizers, as well as industrial waste -- from running off into streams. In waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay, these nutrients promote algae blooms, which choke out the bottom grasses, fish and other aquatic life.

While farming isn't the only source of this nutrient runoff, state officials have calculated that it accounts for an average of 50 percent to 60 percent of it statewide, Lawrence said. Other sources include home lawn care, industry and golf courses.

Of Maryland's 1.6 million acres of farmland, 1.1 million acres are enrolled in voluntary nutrient management plans through the Maryland Cooperative Extension. It is the most extensive voluntary plan of its kind in the country, said Russell Brinsfield, director of the University of Maryland Wye Research and Education Center.

Russell Brinsfield, who is an environmental engineer and a part-time farmer, said Maryland farmers have been responsible: the sheer number of acres in voluntary nutrient management stands as a testament to that.

They have been operating with what scientists told them for years: that they only had to worry about nitrogen levels and that phosphorus didn't run off.

Russell Brinsfield said new evidence in the past few years shows phosphorus in high levels does dissolve into water and run off into streams.

"But the farmers have been doing what they were recommended to do," he said. "It's just that the science evolved. What caused us to shift our gears was Pfiesteria."

Brinsfield said he hopes the state works to help farmers comply without losing so much money they decide it isn't worth it.

"At the end of the day, if the farmer can't make a buck, he's likely to sell his land to be developed," he said. "And developed land, from an environmental point of view, can create as many or more problems as a well-managed farm."

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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