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Local farmers encouraged to comment on phosphorus rule

10/17/13 | By Sheila R. Cherry, Associate Editor

MARYLAND—Organizations that represent farmers on the Eastern Shore, are encouraging their members to comment, on an individual basis, on proposed regulations that could restrict the amount of manure that can be used on local  crops when implemented as expected at the end of the year.

Farm organizations, which represent thousands of farm interests, commented on behalf of their respective agribusiness members during the comment period for an earlier version of the rules. Doing so on a macro level, however, generated only a few comment letters, which was noted during a recent town hall meeting between state officials and the public at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury on Oct. 8.

Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance said in an e-mail he appreciated the number of farmers who came out for the public briefing in Salisbury.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    “We look forward to the public comment period, which will officially start when the regulations are published in the Maryland Register” which is expected to be Oct. 18.

In a Sept. 23 press release, Bill Satterfield, of the Delmarva Poultry Industry told members Hance had “pointed out that during the public comment period early this year on an earlier version of the regulation, there were only seven comments submitted, though some of those comments from agricultural groups like DPI represented thousands of farmers.”

Satterfield encouraged his members to attend the scheduled hearings and to submit their own comments during the comment period that will commence once the rules are re-proposed. The final meeting was held Oct. 15 in Easton.

The objective of the proposed rule, the Phosphorus Management Tool, is to develop a procedure that can “identify soils, farm management practices, and specific locations within a farm where phosphorus (P) losses in field drainage water may pose the potential for negative environmental impacts on nearby surface waters,” researchers from the University of Maryland Extension said in a December 2012 briefing paper.

Moreover, according to an overview of the proposed rules published by the Maryland Department of Agriculture in September, “The PMT analyzes areas where excess phosphorus is present in the soil and identifies where a high potential for phosphorus loss exists.

In a February comment letter, the Maryland Grain Producers Association said it has been a strong supporter of using sound science to drive the nutrient management program and had frequently funded research to improve the state’s knowledge on the management of nutrients, through its MGPA Utilization Board.

Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board said in an Oct. 14 interview, the organization has no doubt that high levels of phosphorous had the potential to pollute local waterways. She cautioned officials, “In trying to protect the bays, don’t put grain farmers out of business.” She said the proposal needed to be field tested before being brought into full implementation and imposed on local farms.

According to Hoot, a result of the proposed rule could lead to poultry farmers having to stockpile their chicken litter, which none would want to do, especially because of the potential for becoming targets of environmental lawsuits like the one that was filed against Hudson Farms. She said the proposed regulations would be doable but for that litigation, which she said took one local farm three years to deal with. It also came with enormous legal costs.

In March the MDA advised that beginning this fall farms with soil that was tested and found to contain more than a threshold level of phosphorus (a Fertility Index Value of 150 or greater) would be prohibited from using poultry manure on those fields. Local farmers, for years had operated within a symbiotic system of transporting chicken litter from poultry farms as inexpensive fertilizer for grain farms, which in turn provided inexpensive grain as feed for the poultry farms. The farmers protested when they learned about the restrictions, which became final in February.

However, officials discovered an inconsistency between the explanation in the June 28  University of Maryland Extension Technical Bulletin for the PMT regulations and the calculations in the formula used for determining the levels of phosphorous, Renato Cuizon, a regulatory compliance coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, explained in an Oct. 11 interview.

An effort to fix the glitch was proposed as an emergency regulation in July, because the rules were already in effect. The emergency classification was proposed so the PMT could be included in nutrient management plans developed for 2013 fall planting as planned, officials said.

However, the emergency proposal was sidelined after State Sen. Richard Colburn (R-37), who serves as a member of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administration, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR), called for hearings on the matter after hearing from concerned local farmers. The AELR has the authority to periodically review existing regulations and to monitor the implementation of specific legislation by a state agency.

“As a result, MDA withdrew the proposal from AELR on August 26, and the hearing was cancelled. MDA then met with key agricultural and environmental stakeholders to clarify and fine tune how the PMT regulations would work,” officials said in a briefing paper,” according to state officials.

In an Aug. 26 statement Kathy Phillips, Executive Director of Assateague Coastal Trust and Assateague Coastkeeper, affiliates of the Waterkeeper Alliance, expressed support for the MDA’s decision to instruct farmer’s to convert from using the phosphorus site index to the phosphorus management tool and disappointment with the delay in its implementation. The PMT more accurately estimates phosphorus levels on fields and its likelihood of polluting waters, she said.

“It is time for Maryland to stop delaying the implementation of these regulations which are necessary to keep our waterways safe, clean, and healthy. Without the new regs, there is no challenge to move forward on final development of new technologies that will not only help the farmer better control the application of these manures on their fields but also create an

entrepreneurial spirit in the agricultural community to find new ways to grow our food while protecting our environment,” Phillips said.

She acknowledged that the proposal would have some impact on farm operations. “Adopting these new regulations will be painful, but the time has come to face the reality that Delmarva cannot sustain a growing poultry/corn/soybean industry without doing significant damage to our waterways,” according to Phillips.

When the agency re-proposes the rules on Oct. 18 as expected, there will follow a 30-day comment period that will end mid-November, before the second version of the PMT would presumably go into effect at the end of the year. In the re-proposal, officials are expected to provide a one-year transition period from the pre-existing phosphorus site index for determining acceptable levels of nutrients contained in soil and the proposed PMT. They will also be given the opportunity to calculate their phosphorus levels under both formulas before the PMT is fully implemented in 2015.

The issue for local farmers is the numbers of chicken farms in the region. “Researchers anticipate that the fields on the lower Eastern Shore and in the Piedmont region in central Maryland will be most affected,” according to an analysis conducted by the Maryland Farm Bureau.

According to the Farm Bureau, “The Department of Agriculture agreed to provide new resources to help move poultry litter and dairy manure to fields where it can still be used under the new PMT.”

Secretary Hance advised anyone wishing to submit comments on the proposed phosphorus management tool to send them to him directly by mail at 50 Harry S Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21401, by fax at 410-841-5914 fax or by e-mail at Earl.Hance@maryland.gov.

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