State moves to limit farm fertilizer, sewage sludge
Maryland is moving ahead with plans to impose controversial new limits on how and when farmers can fertilize their fields.
The proposed changes to the state's "nutrient management" regulations, submitted Thursday to a legislative committee for review, are meant to reduce polluted runoff from farms as part of Maryland's effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. But they've stirred intense opposition as they were being drafted from farmers and from local officials as well, because they not only limit the application of animal manure to farm fields but also of sewage sludge.
Opponents have complained the move by the Maryland Department of Agriculture is unwarranted and costly, potentially requiring Anne Arundel County, for instance, to spend upwards of $30 million to store its sewage sludge over the winter.
UPDATE: "The consensus from most folks I have spoken with agree that these new guidelines will hasten the demise of Maryland Agriculture to about 10 years down the road," emailed state Sen. Barry Glassman, a Republican representing Harford County who's heard from a lot of farmers in his area concerned about being required to fence livestock away from streams. Glassman works for Constellation Energy but raises sheep as a hobby.
But state agriculture officials say the rules are based on research indicating more needs to be done to curtail farm pollution.
“As science evolves and we learn more about how to better manage farms, it’s appropriate to change policies," Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance said in a press release announcing the move.
Among the changes:
- Curtailing the use of fertilizer on grain crops planted in the fall. Officials say research at the University of Maryland has shown nitrogen usually isn't needed at that time to produce abundant wheat and barley in the spring, and the added nutrients often wind up washing off the field into nearby streams and ultimately the bay.
- Requiring that animal manure, sewage sludge, wastewater and other "organic" fertilizers applied to crops be worked into the soil.
- Barring the common practice of spreading animal manure, treated sewage or food processing waste on fields in wintertime, requiring that they be stored until spring or diverted to other uses, such as burning them to produce energy.
- Forbidding fertilizer application within 10 to 35 feet of water ways. Farmers would have to fence off their pastures to keep livestock out of streams.
Some of the new rules wouldn't take effect until 2014 or even 2016, to give farmers and local governments time to make needed changes in their operations.
"We are mindful that these changes may require new technology," Hance said, "and we continue to offer farmers existing cost-share programs to help us meet the goal of a healthier Chesapeake Bay.”
The state has about
$40 million $10 million this year available to help farmers finance manure storage sheds, stream fencing and other related conservation measures, according to Louise Lawrence of the MDA. (The higher figure given me earlier by MDA spokeswoman Julie Oberg included funds for cover crops, manure transport and other best management practices not directly related to these rules).
Farm leaders and rural lawmakers hadn't seen the proposed regulations last night, so withheld comment.
"They say they've made changes, but it's difficult to know," said Patricia Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "The details (will determine) how badly we're going to push back or not."
Environmentalists also were guarded in their reaction, though overall welcoming the move.
"Generally speaking, this is a good couple of steps in the right direction," said Jenn Aiosa, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "They're tightening down some things that in the past definitely have been problematic."
Given the furor the rules stirred as they were being drafted, the joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee is likely to hold a hearing on them. If approved, they would then be published in the Maryland Register, and the public would have 45 days to comment before the department finalizes them.
(2008 Baltimore Sun file photo)