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Farmer cleans out a chicken house between flocks. The "litter," a mix of manure, feathers and wood shavings, is often spread as fertilizer on crop fields.
Farmer cleans out a chicken house between flocks. The "litter," a mix of manure, feathers and wood shavings, is often spread as fertilizer on crop fields. (Doug Kapustin)

Four years ago, Gov. Larry Hogan won much praise in the environmental community for supporting the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool. It’s a state program designed to prevent excess phosphorus, a nutrient found in abundance in poultry droppings, from washing off farm fields and polluting Eastern Shore streams. And for years, poultry growers and the companies that contract them have known that they’d have to find new ways of disposing of litter (manure and wood chips) from poultry houses instead of dropping it on fields already saturated with phosphorus. Now, it appears the industry is banking on the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the governor to cave on those rules and substantially delay them because — believe it or not — they claim not to have found an affordable alternative to spreading the waste on their own land.

Sorry, but that’s not acceptable. Big Poultry has known for a half-decade that the deadline is looming and pushing the full implementation date past July 2022 is the kind of coddling of polluters that we’d never accept from other industries, government or even private land owners. Phosphorus isn’t some minor inconvenience. It’s a major Chesapeake Bay pollutant, contributing to algae blooms that reduce dissolved oxygen in the water, killing aquatic life and creating toxic dead zones. What’s particularly galling is that phosphorus has its place as a crop fertilizer — just not in locations such as large swaths of the lower Eastern Shore where it’s already abundant.

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Next month, an advisory committee is expected to recommend action (most likely a delay) to Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder. The former Baltimore County council member and delegate ought to signal to this group right now that they need to recommend to him a better course of action than capitulation. They might, for example, recommend the Hogan administration allocate greater resources to an existing program that subsidizes manure transport, trucking waste from farms with too much phosphorus to farms that can use it safely to fertilize their crops. Or the group might push for other cost-effective alternative uses for animal waste. Perhaps even creating lined landfills for the purpose.

Poultry "litter," a mixture of bird manure and wood shavings, is periodically removed from chicken houses. Growers with large flocks are required to report annually on what they do with the waste.
Poultry "litter," a mixture of bird manure and wood shavings, is periodically removed from chicken houses. Growers with large flocks are required to report annually on what they do with the waste. (Doug Kapustin)

Admittedly, it’s understandable that poultry growers feel squeezed by the rules. They grow chickens under contract and it can be a relatively slim margin of profit. Taking away a free source of fertilizer for their estimated 210,000 acres (about one-fifth the state’s cropland) and creating a new cost to dispose of it can be a struggle, particularly when the market for animal waste isn’t exactly booming and there’s a shortage of trucks and drivers to handle it. Still, there’s a better solution: Make the big vertically-integrated producers, companies like Perdue Farms and Mountaire Farms, pay for waste disposal, shifting the cost away from their mom-and-pop growers. It would surely amount to no more than a penny or two on the price of a broiler, a burden far easier for them to digest than for small farmers.

Secretary Bartenfelder might see the matter differently, of course. His department puts a lot more time and effort into promoting farming and the poultry industry then into regulating them. But the buck doesn’t necessarily stop with him — or even with Governor Hogan. Veteran state lawmakers have voiced their frustration with the lack of accountability over poultry-related pollution before. Not long ago, the General Assembly seriously considered changing the law to make poultry companies legally responsible for poultry waste. The “Poultry Litter Management Act” didn’t pass the first time around in 2016 (when Secretary Bartenfelder testified it wasn’t necessary because of the Phosphorus Management Tool), but it might now if the PMT proves ineffective.

We don’t relish placing a financial burden on farmers, but enough is enough. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has had long enough to help farmers find a way to meet these requirements. Delaying them now sends a message to all polluters that in Maryland you can agree to clean up your act and then sit on your hands because, when push comes to shove, the state will eventually back down. Agricultural runoff is the single biggest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. If Maryland isn’t going to stick to its guns on this, how can it expect Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Delaware and D.C. to meet their cleanup obligations? The harmfulness of excess manure to water quality has been known for decades. Now isn’t the time to revisit one of Governor Hogan’s best (and toughest) pro-environment decisions.

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