Hogan's phosphorus regulations reflect the nation's best science

Do Gov. Hogan's phosphorus regulations reflect the nation's best science?

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what Gov. Larry Hogan's Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative really contains, and I would like to clearly state the facts about how we plan to address phosphorus.

The new phosphorus management tool (PMT) regulations (available online at http://www.mda.maryland.gov/pmt make four significant enhancements to the previous administration's November 2014 proposal, and they are the only substantive changes. These changes address key concerns of the agricultural community while providing immediate environmental protection and comprehensive data on agricultural soil phosphorus conditions across the state. The four enhancements:

•Ensure adequate time for farmers to fully understand and plan for new requirements. These regulations will require many farmers to significantly change the way they operate and manage their farms. Some will have to purchase new, expensive equipment to apply commercial fertilizer rather than manure. Implementing these regulations before farmers are able to comply will clearly put many out of business. The new proposal provides one extra year for farmers to reach full implementation, although all farmers will start the PMT implementation process this summer. Enacting the regulations before farmers could realistically be expected to comply was one of the biggest objections they had to earlier proposals.

•Assure agricultural producers that critical elements are available for implementation. For PMT implementation to be successful, key elements need to be in place. As implementation progresses, the state will analyze these elements, which include: markets to relocate additional manure; adequate infrastructure to handle and transport manure; and alternative uses and new technologies to begin to provide new outlets and markets for animal manures. If the analysis shows these elements aren't available, farmers could postpone advancing to the next level of management for one year, not forever. If these elements are not in place, however, our family farms will be at risk of going out of business. Therefore, the state intends to expand its investment in these areas to ensure, as much as possible, that these elements are in place. It is in everyone's best interest that we succeed.

•Enact an immediate ban of additional phosphorus on soils highest in phosphorus. Upon adoption of the regulations, farmers with fields very high in phosphorus (i.e., those with a soil Fertility Index Value of 500 or greater) will be immediately banned from applying any phosphorus. These are the fields where phosphorus is most likely to leave the farm and enter nearby waterways. We estimate this will impact about 20 percent of the farm acres on the lower Eastern Shore. This provision provides an immediate benefit that goes beyond the original proposal.

•Provide comprehensive information on soil phosphorus conditions statewide. Every farm in Maryland that earns more than $2,500 or manages 8,000 pounds of animal weight must, by law, submit and follow a nutrient management plan. Beginning in September and every six years thereafter, soil test phosphorus data will be collected for all farms subject to nutrient management plan requirements. This will provide us with accurate soil fertility data, by county, so we can monitor trends in phosphorus levels and better identify where newly available manure may be spread.

In addition to these enhancements, the Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative includes an on-farm economic impact study. While Salisbury University conducted an economic analysis last fall, we don't have real on-farm data about the economic impact of the PMT. That is why we will launch an on-farm economic analysis project this spring. MDA will recruit 10 to 12 farmers to evaluate the economic impacts of implementing the PMT on a minimum of 1,000 acres. The data will help us determine what other resources we need to effectively and fully implement the PMT statewide. Governor Hogan has committed funding to help offset those economic impacts and to share costs of environmental improvements.

Finally, it is important to point out that it took many decades for phosphorus to reach the high levels we see today. More importantly, the early returns from the latest Bay Model Progress Report show that the Department of Agriculture has achieved its 2017 target goal for phosphorus. The PMT is in no way a compromise but reflects a national body of science's best understanding of assessing risk of phosphorus loss to our rivers and streams. Maryland farmers have always embraced science-based policy, and our Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative emphasizes that Maryland farmers are committed to restoring our treasured Chesapeake Bay.

Joe Bartenfelder is secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. His email is joe.bartenfelder@maryland.gov.

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