By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Jan. 3, 2019) Members of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade association are seeking a delay in the rollout of environmental regulations they contend will inflict severe financial damage on local farmers.
DPI officials said they are concerned by the “Phosphorus Management Tool” that was developed a decade ago by University of Maryland scientists to “identify the potential risk of phosphorus loss from farm fields and prevent the additional buildup of phosphorus in soils that are already saturated,” according to a 2017 report developed for Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly.
According to the Phosphorus Management Tool Transition Advisory Committee report, “Soils with high phosphorus levels are typically found on fields that have used manure or poultry litter as a crop nutrient over an extended period of time. Use of the Phosphorus Management Tool only applies to farm fields with high soil phosphorus levels identified by a Fertility Index Value (FIV) of 150 or greater. If a farm field scores less than 150 FIV, the farmer may apply phosphorus to the land based on the farm’s nutrient management plan and current University of Maryland recommendations.”
The Phosphorus Management Tool Transition Advisory Committee was established in 2015 and is chaired by the Maryland Secretary of Agriculture.
DPI Executive Director Bill Satterfield, in a Nov. 14 letter to the Phosphorus Management Tool committee, said his membership includes “hundreds of farm families that grow chickens for the five local chicken companies, many of whom also grow crops, and grain farmers” and were negatively affected by the PMT regulations.
“Our organization seeks a comprehensive evaluation … and a transition adjustment to allow time for a thorough evaluation as allowed by the regulation because conditions appear to warrant such a delayed implementation,” Satterfield said.
He said a delay for further evaluation is necessary because “Viable on-the-farm alternative uses for chicken litter/manure have not developed,” adding “Economically and technologically the envisioned systems have not [worked].”
“There have been poor results from on-the-farm demonstration units funded by the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Animal Waste Technology Fund,” Satterfield said.
“Crop farmers who might be denied the use of chicken litter/manure through the PMT system might not be able to buy more expensive commercial fertilizers,” he continued. “Crop prices are low. Corn is selling in the $3.50 per bushel level while soybeans are in the $8 range. These prices are the lowest in years. Many farmers are struggling to remain in business. Forcing farmers who must transition to the PMT schedule might make fertilizer too expensive to buy.”
Satterfield went on to say fertilizer manufacturers and distributors “have noted that it would be difficult to supply enough fertilizer to Maryland farmers in the coming years if all those forced to stop using animal manures because of the PMT need commercial fertilizers.”
“The uncertain nature of state support for manure transport programs is another issue,” he said. “While Maryland’s chicken companies have provided millions of dollars to assist in the movement of manure to sites where it can be used, there always is year-to-year uncertainty of what the state government’s commitment will be.”
He said efforts in Pennsylvania to reduce nutrient pollution to its waterways and the Chesapeake Bay would likely lead to more Pennsylvania manure being shipped within the state, “thus displacing Maryland chicken manure being shipped there now.”
“This displacement will cause a huge negative impact on Maryland chicken farmers’ options for shipping to alternative use facilities,” he said.
What’s more, Satterfield said there had been little funding or research “to extract phosphorus from soils that would lower the FIV in the soils below the 150 level.”
“Accordingly, the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. urges the Phosphorus Management Tool Transition Advisory Committee to conduct a comprehensive evaluation as allowed under the regulation and to give serious consideration to allowing a delay in the phase-in schedule for PMT implementation to allow this evaluation to be conducted properly,” he said.
Representatives from the Delmarva Poultry Industry also pointed to comments during a November public meeting that cast doubt on how much research had been done. The comments were attributed to Dr. Patricia Steinhilber, a soil fertility and nutrient management specialist with the Nutrient Management Program at the University of Maryland.
Steinhilber, in a Dec. 28 email, said, “At a recent meeting of the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT) Advisory Committee in November, I stated that the PMT is a sound theoretical tool that had not been field-verified. The PMT, like the Phosphorus Site Index before it, has many components to address all the potential loss pathways (runoff, erosion, leaching and subsurface drainage). Various components have been verified by hydrologists and soil scientists in the Mid-Atlantic.
“Field verification would be costly as it would require additional staff and expensive monitoring equipment at multiple sites around the state for 3 to 5 years,” she added.
Maryland Department of Agriculture Director of Communications Jason D. Schellhardt said his department did receive the Delmarva Poultry Industry letter, but added, “any discussion of a delay would be premature at this point.”
He did not respond to further requests for comment.
Virgil Shockley, the DPI representative to the Phosphorus Management Tool Transition Advisory Committee, suggested a delay this year is unlikely.
Shockley, who represented the Snow Hill area for several terms as a Worcester County Commissioner, said the impact of agriculture on the local economy varies from year to year. According to Shockley, in 2011 agriculture was roughly 31-32 percent of the Worcester County economy, while last year it was closer to 25 percent.
He said Phosphorus Management Tool rollouts last year, for farms with a Fertility Index Value of more than 450, affected about 8-10 percent of the 69,000 acres of plantable farmland in Worcester County.
“Which means that they could not use chicken manure as far as a fertilizer for their crops,” Shockley said. “Simply because you’re not using chicken manure doesn’t mean you’re not using fertilizer – the only difference is you’re paying for it.
He said further rollout of the regulations this year, to include farms with a Fertility Index Value of greater than 300, would account for close to 25 percent of Worcester County farms.
“When they kick in the 2020 rollout and go to nothing over 150 … you’re going to lose about 75 percent of the fields that won’t be able to be spread [manure] in Worcester County – and probably closer to 80 percent,” he said. “At some point in time, it’s going to catch up with everybody.”
For a farmer spreading chicken manure of 100 acres of corn, for instance, “that’s about $5,000 worth of fertilizer that I did not have to buy,” Shockley said.
He said the increased cost to move to commercial fertilizer would likely top $750,000 countywide this year and balloon to $5 million next year.
Further complicating matters are declining crop prices and the agricultural trade war between the United States and China, Shockley said.
“Farmers are a victim of their own ability to produce,” he said. “We’re out here and we were told back in 2000 we have to feed the world. So, like any good farmer, we went ahead and decided to do that.
“Agriculture was and still is one of the few things that we export instead of importing,” Shockley continued. “We export a huge amount of grain to the world – or, we did until the China fiasco.”
Unless something changes, he said, “corn prices aren’t going to go up, bean prices are not going to go up, but your input costs are going up – because you’re buying fertilizer now.”
He also said any suggestion that farmers would encourage pollution is laughable.
“Nobody wanted a dirty Chesapeake Bay – nobody wants a dirty Pocomoke River,” Shockley said. “These are our farms – do you really think we’re going to pollute the hell out of them?
“This is what’s so asinine to me – and insulting – is that you have someone who knows absolutely zero about farming anything or growing anything being a committee chair in Annapolis and standing up and saying, ‘You guys are the worst polluters in the world’ … that’s about where it was,” he added.
Because of the lead-time required before the next planting season, Shockley said it is unlikely anything could be done to delay the rollout this year.
“I don’t think you’re going to see [a delay] in 2019,” he said. “I’m optimistic we’ll get one for the 2020 planting season, but I’m not optimistic we’re going to get one for 2019.
“There’s going to be a lot of pain before this is over – and I’ve heard some horrendous corn yields,” Shockley said, adding some farmers reported growing half their output from just one year prior. “There’s no way when you’re losing that kind of money per acre … if you’re a young guy starting out, it’s over.”
What can people do?
“You have elected officials that need to hear from you,” Shockley said. “If you’re hurting and this affects you, then your delegate’s phone should be ringing and your senator’s phone should be ringing.
“You don’t have to get personal, but they need to be able to take the message to Annapolis that we’ve got a problem and it’s not going away,” he added.