“By Elizabeth M. Piazza
Capital News Service
Many Maryland farmers, saying they are unfairly blamed for problems in the Chesapeake Bay, publicly voiced their frustrations Thursday over new regulations that attempt to stop poultry waste from entering the bay.
Nearly 50 farmers, state officials and environmental advocates gathered at a final public hearing at Frederick City Hall to express their views regarding the Maryland Department of the Environment’s new animal feeding operation regulations.
Under the proposed regulations, large poultry operations would be required to have a discharge permit – a permit to release manure, poultry litter or processed wastewater.
The permit, which would cover approximately 200 poultry operations, would bring more than 50 percent of the state’s poultry litter under regulation by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
This has farmers concerned as many already follow nutrient management programs regulated by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
“”We don’t need more laws with the nutrient management program that we already have,”” said Ray Miller, a farmer from Garrett County.
Beginning in 1989, nutrient management programs have provided nutrient planning services to Maryland farmers as well as poultry growers in order to reduce the nutrients that enter the bay.
Excessive levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are detrimental to the bay’s health, as they create conditions that are harmful to blue crabs, bay grasses and other aquatic life.
“”We found in Maryland that there was no transparency or ability for citizens to find out if farmers were in compliance with the law,”” said Michele Merkel, the Chesapeake Regional Coordinator of Waterkeeper Alliance, an international grassroots advocacy organization.
This permit allows citizens to protect themselves when someone is polluting their waterways, she said.
Tom Hartsock, member of the Maryland Agricultural Commission and a retired pig farmer, would like to see the Maryland Department of Agriculture more strictly enforce the existing nutrient management program.
“”The Maryland Department of Agriculture has been too kind to its constituency,”” Hartsock said, referring to Maryland farmers. “”I’m not opposed to environmental regulations but I’m in favor of doing them in a sensible way.””
Hartsock said farmers should only answer to one agency and the new regulations add overlapping rules.
In addition to requiring permits, the new regulations would allow nutrient management plans be made available to the public.
Many opponents argued that the nutrient management plans are a vital part of each farm’s overall business plan and allowing the public to have access would be like sharing trade secrets.
In addition to public access requirements, Waterkeeper Alliance further advocated that all poultry waste be stored in sheds with concrete floors.
This raised more concerns for Maryland farmers who feel they are slowly being run out of business.
“”In order to build facilities to house litter is nothing to sneeze at,”” said Gareth Harshman, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau. “”We’re talking about six figures. We can’t afford to do that without grants.””
Harshman relies on the poultry industry to stay in business because his crops are used as feed by the chickens.
If it weren’t for the soy and corn needs on the Eastern Shore, I don’t know where my crops would go, he said. He argued that a significant drop in the poultry industry, would adversely affect the agricultural industry across the state.
As part of the permitting process, farmers would also be subject to unannounced inspections.
“”I don’t feel I need any Tom, Dick or Harry to look at how I’m doing things,”” said Harshman, who acknowledged that he over fertilized in the 1980’s but is now in compliance because of the existing programs.
Opponents of the new regulations argued that Maryland farmers are the scapegoat for problems in the Chesapeake Bay and that human waste and development contribute significantly to the problem.
“”How many tons of salt did Frederick County spread on the roads last year,”” said Robert Ramsburg, a dairy farmer and member of the Maryland Agricultural Commission.
“”We’re not just focused on agriculture,”” said Merkel, of Waterkeepers Alliance. “”We’re an equal opportunity corporation and we expect that everyone has to do their part, including farmers, and farmers have been off the hook for some time. It’s time for compliance.””
Comments on the regulations can be submitted to the Maryland Department of the Environment until 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20.