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Ehrlich hears farmers' input on runoff

WYE MILLS — WYE MILLS - More than 250 farmers sounded off yesterday about the state's program to reduce nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, sharply criticizing what they called excessive red tape and paperwork.

Taking advantage of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign promise to listen to them at Maryland's first "Nutrient Management Summit," the farmers suggested a reduction in the information they must provide to the state and a less confrontational inspection process.

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"It really seems clear that there's a concern among farmers with the current program about privacy with their own operations," said Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. "That's one thing that came across, that the farmers understand the need to manage nutrients to protect the water but don't see the need for so much paperwork."

By the end of the day, the summit's participants - who also included poultry processors, environmentalists, agricultural consultants, scientists and state and local officials - produced dozens of recommendations for the administration to consider before the 2004 legislative session.

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They included more financial incentives to handle poultry manure safely, using Delaware's voluntary compliance program as a model for Maryland and requiring nutrient management plans only for farms that are at "high risk" of polluting the bay.

Scientists say that nutrient runoff - primarily nitrogen and phosphorus - lowers water quality, kills underwater grasses and contributes to depleted water oxygen levels that threaten fish and crabs.

A report released last week found that the area of the bay with the lowest oxygen content and almost no fish had grown by about 30 percent this summer.

In Maryland, the two primary sources of nutrient runoff are believed to be waste-water treatment plants and the overuse of fertilizer, particularly manure. Much of that manure comes from the 500 million chickens raised on the Eastern Shore each year.

Maryland and other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have agreed to cut nutrient runoff in half by 2010.

Yesterday's summit delivered on a campaign pledge by Ehrlich to "give farmers a seat at the table." Ehrlich has been sharply critical of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's policies, saying they ignored agriculture in favor of environmentalist viewpoints.

This summer, the administration ended a Glendening administration effort to hold large poultry processors responsible for the manure from chickens raised on their behalf by independent growers. An administrative law judge had ruled the proposal illegal.

'Real science'

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Opening yesterday's all-day meeting at Chesapeake College, Ehrlich urged participants to rely on "real science" and bridge the gap between the agricultural community and environmental advocates.

"It's time to get by this false dichotomy, this supposed zero-sum game between agriculture and the environment," Ehrlich said. "This line-drawing, pitting one group against another, that's the politics of the past."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised Ehrlich's effort to bring the two sides together. "What is good for agriculture can be good for the bay, and vice versa," he said.

Farmers said yesterday's summit marked their first substantive opportunity to discuss the state's five-year effort to force them to reduce nutrient runoff.

The 1998 General Assembly - prompted by an outbreak the previous summer of the fish-killing bacteria known as Pfiesteria piscicida - enacted legislation requiring stringent nutrient management plans for agricultural fields. Nutrient runoff, particularly phosphorus, was blamed for the bacteria's rapid growth.

"The phosphorus problem wasn't developed in five or 10 years, and we're not going to solve it in five or 10 years," Riley said. "But we need to be well on our way."

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Riley said 85 percent of farms have nutrient management plans or are developing them.

List of complaints

In small group sessions, most farmers conceded they should be responsible for limiting the nutrients on their fields. But they complained about over-regulation, excessive paperwork and a "right of entry" agreement they're required to sign that permits state inspectors to enter their farms without notice.

"The way the program was set up, you're treated as if you're guilty until you prove your innocence," said Joseph Kuhn, a farmer who raises cattle in Woodbine. "I support wanting to make the bay clean. But they blasted everyone when they started this, when they should have targeted the program."

For example, the state's pesticide control program requires only that farmers be licensed and keep on-site records available for inspection. By contrast, they complained, they must submit lengthy plans on manure and fertilizer usage each year.

"Everybody thinks it needs to be streamlined, that there doesn't need to be so much paperwork sent to the state every year," said Buddy Hance, a Calvert County farmer. "The right of entry is the other problem; it's what created most of the dissension. People forget that our homes are our farms, and farmers are reluctant to sign a document giving the state the right to enter our farms at any time."

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As the summit ended, participants voted on the dozens of ideas developed during the work sessions. Assistant Agricultural Secretary Royden N. Powell III said the votes will be tabulated, and the administration will then consider changes to the state's regulations.

But Bill Street, a watershed restoration scientist with the bay foundation, questioned whether the voting process is the best way to bring environmentalists and farmers together. "We think there was a lot of great discussion, and there needs to be more communication about these ideas," he said. "By voting, rather than continuing to talk, it will just seem to polarize the debate, which is the opposite of the way Governor Ehrlich wanted it."


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