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Local farmers encouraged to comment on phosphorus rule

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.                                                                                                                                                                           
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

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

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