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Fertilizer regulations intrusive, say farmers; Some say state rules ignore earlier efforts


A hundred years ago, when Calvin Wade's grandfather started planting rye grass to hold down his soil over the fall and winter, he didn't know he was helping the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, farmers know that planting cover crops is one way to keep fertilizer nutrients from running off into streams. Many of them volunteer to follow detailed plans to keep nutrients out of the bay.

The state is about to publish rules that will insist all farmers do so, and it will inspect them periodically to make sure they comply. Farmers who thought they were doing the right thing are now on the defensive.

"I think what most farmers have a problem with is they have been stewards of the land for so many years, and all of a sudden, they're being told what they can do and can't do," said Wade, 55, who raises and sells vegetables from his Millersville farm in Anne Arundel County.

The regulations could require farmers to buy commercial fertilizer in place of the manure their animals provide for free. In some cases, it could cost them thousands of dollars.

Many of the state's farmers already are following voluntary management plans through local offices of the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

"As a farmer, you can't put too much [fertilizer] on or you'll burn the crop up," said Wade. "If you don't take care of the ground, it's not going to produce for you," said Wade.

"The best soldiers are those that volunteer," said Gary Bowerman, a Carroll County farmer who milks 80 cows on his rented farm in Linwood, near Union Bridge. In many ways, his farm is a throwback to another time. He and his wife, deeply religious German Baptist Brethren, believe in working with their hands and shun computers. They home-school their eight children. The five oldest ones help him on the farm.

He has had a nutrient-management plan in effect for years with the extension service. In 1994, he worked with his landlady to get state money for building a concrete-lined manure storage pit. Such pits, recommended by the state, keep stored manure off the ground, where it can leach nutrients.

"Nobody made me do it," he said. "We wanted to do it, just trying to be good stewards. I'm not worried about a law that's reasonable, but if it isn't reasonable, what can you do?"

John Brinsfield, a Dorchester County farmer, compares the state oversight to telling a citizen how to keep house.

"A farmer knows his land better than anyone else can -- the nuance, the slope of the land, the soil texture, the soil type," Brinsfield said. "No one knows your home as well as you do, and this is a living thing."

Maryland farmers are already at the forefront in the country for their widespread participation in voluntary nutrient-management programs since the 1980s, said David Myers, extension agent for the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Anne Arundel County.

"So the fact that this becomes a mandatory thing probably makes them feel villainized," Myers said.

Herbert Wayson, president of the Anne Arundel County Farm Bureau and a third-generation farmer in Davidsonville, took a two-day class with the Maryland Department of Agriculture a few years ago to be certified and licensed to write his own nutrient management plan.

But to some farmers, he said, getting a license to apply fertilizer is ludicrous.

"That doesn't make sense to someone who's been spreading manure all their life," Wayson said.

At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland office, Executive Director Thomas V. Grasso sympathizes but adds that the legislation makes allowances such as cost-sharing programs for manure storage, tax credits and low-interest loans.

"If we look at the actual monitoring of the water and the nutrients that are there, despite the best efforts of farmers, we still have this nutrient pollution problem that needs to be addressed," Grasso said.

He would like to see the large poultry companies shoulder more of the burden than the farmers who contract with them to raise their birds.

The largest of those companies, Perdue Farms Inc., announced this week that it plans to build a $6 million factory to convert poultry litter into fertilizer pellets to be shipped to other parts of the country. The plant is expected to use about 15 percent of the poultry litter produced on the shore's farms.

There is nothing in the new law requiring poultry companies to do anything.

"Clearly, that's one of the issues that remains open, is how to deal with the chicken companies' role," Grasso said.

The reason for the requirement is the 1997 outbreak of Pfiesteria in Southern Maryland waters, which scientists think was triggered by runoff. In the past few years, evidence shows that excess phosphorus in fertilized soil can leach into water and flow into the bay. Such nutrients can feed algae blooms that choke out other aquatic life.

Until recently, farmers were told to watch only nitrogen levels. The new regulations will also address phosphorus, which could be a problem for Eastern Shore poultry farmers because poultry manure is high in phosphorus.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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