By Timothy B. Wheeler
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder declared Monday that he saw no need to delay a state regulation that restricts the use of animal manure to fertilize farm fields, despite a study warning there are likely to be problems dealing with the excess manure that is expected to result.
Bartenfelder, in a letter to a departmental advisory committee, said that he was basing his decision on its overwhelming vote recently to oppose any postponement of the restrictions. The 19-member state advisory committee — which included representatives of the poultry industry, farmers, municipalities and environmentalists — had voted Dec. 13 to recommend against a one-year delay in the restrictions to be imposed in the coming year on more than 1,300 farms in the state.
The vote came after the panel received a report from Salisbury University’s Business Economic and Community Outreach Network (B.E.A.C.O.N.) saying that the state lacks the funding, trucks and storage facilities likely needed to collect and haul away the animal manure that grain growers would no longer be able to spread on fields.
228,000 acres, 1,600 farms
The Phosphorus Management Tool regulation, adopted in 2015, restricts or bars outright the application of phosphorus on fields where there’s a risk that it will wash out of the soil into nearby streams and drainage ditches when it rains. The restrictions could affect a total of 228,000 acres on 1,600 farms statewide by the time they are fully phased in Jan. 1, 2022.
So far, about 65,000 acres on 350 farms have been regulated. In the coming year, however, nearly 123,000 acres of farm fields are expected to be affected by the rule. Most are on the Eastern Shore, where poultry manure is widely used to fertilize corn and soybean crops.
Phosphorus is one of the nutrients contained in animal manure, which farmers have traditionally relied on as a low-cost fertilizer. In some places, manure has been applied to fields so often that phosphorus has built up in the soil and risks running off into local waterways. There, phosphorus feeds algae blooms and worsens the fish-stressing “dead zone” that forms in the Chesapeake Bay.
State officials have said there’s ample farm acreage elsewhere in Maryland — and even on the Upper Shore — where more manure could be safely applied to soils without high levels of phosphorus. The state provides $1 million annually to subsidize hauling about 250,000 tons of animal manure each year to farms where it can be safely spread.
More money needed
But the Salisbury University study predicted that with so many more fields subject to potential restrictions the state would have to boost its manure transport subsidy and provide financial incentives to expand the private truck fleet now hauling it. Memo Diriker, director of B.E.A.C.O.N., projected $10 million might be needed over the next three years.
Lower Shore growers also have said that they fear restrictions on manure use will hurt them financially by forcing them to buy more expensive commercial fertilizer.
Even so, the panel voted 12 to 5, with two abstentions, to recommend against holding up the regulation for a year. Environmentalists opposed the delay, arguing that the restrictions are needed to improve water quality in the Bay and its rivers. They were joined by representatives of major farming groups, who later issued a joint statement calling for all concerned to work together on an “action plan” to address the challenges the restrictions pose.
“When we succeed, we can make a case for freedom to operate in a business climate where phosphorus runoff is being properly addressed and managed to benefit the environment and protect water quality,” the joint statement said. It was signed by leaders of the Maryland Farm Bureau, Maryland Grain Producers Association and Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc.
Agriculture Secretary Bartenfelder stressed in his letter that restoring the Bay is a top priority of Gov. Larry Hogan and the phosphorus regulation is “a major part of our efforts to reduce nutrient runoff.”
Hogan had initially opposed the phosphorus regulation developed by his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, because of concerns it would hurt farmers, and he blocked it from taking effect when he took office in 2015. But he reinstated it a short while later with a few modifications, including a provision allowing for a one-year delay if officials determined the state was not ready to deal with its impact. In his letter, Bartenfelder said that Hogan had forged “a landmark agreement between the agricultural and environmental communities.”
Now, the agriculture secretary said, state officials are consulting with all concerned to see that the restrictions continue to be phased in smoothly.
“The department will ensure that farmers and growers, especially those on the Lower Eastern Shore, receive the funding and support they need to assist them during the transition,” he said.
Timothy B. Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor and senior writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.