Unhappy with new state regulations on fertilizer and manure, Carroll County farmers kept their feelings in check yesterday when listening to state Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts and Assistant Secretary Royden N. Powell 3rd, even as the officials delivered news farmers would rather not hear.
"I think there's some acceptance that [the new set of regulations] is here and we have to deal with it the best we can," said William Knill, a local beef and grain farmer and former president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. He was among the 45 farmers and local business people at the Carroll County Agribusiness breakfast at Baugher's Restaurant in Westminster.
The "nutrient management" regulations will begin to take effect next year. They are being revised after two rounds of public hearings in the past 10 months. Powell said he expects them to be made final by late spring or summer.
Under the new regulations, farmers must have a plan for using, storing or disposing of manure and fertilizer to prevent nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from entering the state's waterways. The nutrients can feed algae blooms that choke off other aquatic life.
The goal is not to put more phosphorus or nitrogen onto the soil than it needs to support crops and pasture. Excess nutrients could run off into streams.
The regulations are a product of the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, passed by the General Assembly in reaction to the 1997 outbreak of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in the waters of Maryland's Eastern Shore. Scientists linked the outbreak to runoff from poultry litter, which is high in phosphorus, at Eastern Shore chicken farms.
Farmers, however, resent that they are being forced to change their practices before scientists determine the extent of agriculture's responsibility for the presence of nutrients in Maryland waters.
Virts said research continues to support what the new regulations require: a reduction in nutrient runoff. A report this week from the National Academy of Sciences identified nutrient runoff of nitrogen as the most serious threat to coastal waters nationwide.
By 2005, virtually everyone in Maryland raising any kind of agricultural crop for profit, and everyone who has at least 8,000 pounds of livestock, must develop such a plan. About 70 percent of the state's farmers follow voluntary plans -- many of them written with free guidance from the Maryland Cooperative Extension.
Virts approached the topic with an ice-breaker yesterday.
"Maybe I'll be thrown out of here, but if I am, I want to say that was a real good breakfast," Virts said.
Virts and Powell were on friendly first-name basis with most of the audience. A few farmers called Virts by his nickname, Bud.
The two state officials urged the farmers to look at the Agriculture Department less as enforcer -- although that is its responsibility -- and more as a technical assistant and supporter. Farmers will be given chances to remedy violations before they receive fines.
"Our goal here is not so much to enforce it, but as a cooperative partner in success," said Virts. "Our goal is clean water and profitable agriculture."
Virts and Powell asked the farmers to take pride in Maryland's leadership in fighting nutrient pollution. Others will be following with similar regulations, he said. He said research is continuing, and that the regulations could be adapted as scientists learn more about how nutrients move across soil.
Farmers who violate or ignore the regulations would get a warning, Powell said. A second violation carries a fine of $100, and a third carries a $250 fine. No one farm would have to pay more than $2,000 in a given year.
Powell said persistent violations require the MDA to turn cases over to the Maryland Department of the Environment as a clean water issue.
Farmer Melvin Baile Sr., whose extended family is active in 4-H, asked whether youngsters who raise steers and hogs as projects would need a plan.
They would, Powell said, if their animals weigh a combined 8,000 pounds or more. That would mean about eight or nine full-grown cattle.
Retired lawyer Robert Wheeler of Finksburg, like many people in Carroll County, is not a full-time farmer, but raises 100 head of beef cattle on his 240-acre farm. He asked Powell what he would have to do under the regulations.
Wheeler will have to have his soil tested for phosphorus and nutrient levels. He will need to have manure samples analyzed, to learn how much of the nutrients are present. He can hire a private consultant to do this for about $3 an acre, or work with an educator at the extension office.
The topic kept everyone's attention, said Paul Hering, a retired farmer who serves as master of ceremonies at the monthly breakfast, where eggs and sausage are served family-style before the speaker goes on.
"This is the first time nobody left before the program started," Hering said.