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Manure curbs could cost Shore farmers, study says

Maryland is grappling with whether to restrict the use of chicken manure as crop fertilizer.
Maryland is grappling with whether to restrict the use of chicken manure as crop fertilizer. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

An O'Malley administration plan to restrict the use of chicken manure as crop fertilizer could cost Eastern Shore farmers from $22 million to nearly $53 million over the next six years, depending on how quickly they have to comply, a new study says. And that's even with millions more in taxpayer subsidies provided to growers to ease their economic burden.

The long-awaited study, by a Salisbury University business center, leaves uncertain how — or whether — the departing Gov. Martin O'Malley will proceed with his controversial proposal to curtail a traditional Shore farming practice that environmental scientists say is polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

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State Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance declined to say what the administration might do, saying officials need more time to evaluate the report they commissioned.

"All the options are on the table," Hance said, without elaboration.

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State officials had commissioned the Salisbury study this year in response to pressure from lawmakers concerned about the effect of manure limits on Shore farmers. Scheduled for completion by the end of summer, the release slipped into fall and past the election. Memo Diriker, the report's author, said it had taken him longer than expected to wade through 4,500 pages of information.

Restricting the use of animal manure as fertilizer is a key part of the O'Malley administration's plan for cleaning up the bay. Many farm fields on the lower Shore, the heart of the state's poultry industry, are saturated with phosphorus from repeated applications of chicken manure to fertilize corn, soybeans and other crops. Levels of phosphorus, one of the pollutants responsible for the bay's fish-suffocating "dead zone," are rising in Shore rivers that drain farm fields.

But the administration has twice withdrawn its proposed regulation limiting the application of phosphorus on farm fields amid an outcry from farmers, the poultry industry and their supporters.

Farmers have warned that the costs of dealing with manure restrictions could be prohibitive for many chicken growers and crop farmers. Growers would have to pay to haul away an estimated 228,000 tons of manure annually that could no longer be spread on nearby farm fields. Crop farmers, meanwhile, would have to pay more for chemical fertilizer to replace the phosphorus-laden manure.

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The study evaluated the impact on farmers from phasing in manure limits over two to six years, with the lowest cost for the longest timetable. Farmers would need to pay $28 per ton, the study estimates, to have their manure hauled out of the region, and $60 to $75 per ton to replace the manure with a comparable amount of chemical fertilizer.

If the restrictions are imposed quickly, state subsidies for transporting manure also would need to grow by nearly $1.5 million a year, the study estimates, to ease the burden on farmers. But the longer the phase-in, Diriker said, the more likely alternative uses of manure — such as a planned state-sponsored power plant that would burn chicken waste as fuel — could be developed that would reduce transport costs.

The study did acknowledge that there's an economic value to cleaning up the bay. An analysis commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently put it at $22 billion. But Diriker said those benefits don't help farmers struggling with added costs, calling them "apples and oranges."

Farm and poultry industry representatives didn't immediately respond to the report. Colby Ferguson, government affairs director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said his group's leaders were reviewing it.

But environmental advocates urged the O'Malley administration to forge ahead with its regulation.

"The state should be flexible in the implementation, but it can delay no longer," said Alison Prost, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "There's no other way to get the Maryland Eastern Shore back on track for clean water."

"This is one of the really big opportunities to control phosphorus pollution," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a body made up of state lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. A phased-in approach "makes sense," she added, to ease the upheaval and burden on farmers.

"Timing," she added, "is not nearly as important as that it happens."

Gov-elect Larry Hogan, however, has said he's concerned about the effect of the regulation on the state's poultry industry. He said in a pre-election interview that he'd block it and seek to find another way to deal with the problem that doesn't burden farmers as much.

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