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Manure Happens. And Farmers Want The Next Governor's Help In Dealing With It

John Lee

Maryland farmers are worried about regulations in the works at the state Department of Agriculture.

The tussle is over how much the state should regulate runoff from farms that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. 

David Hill, who raises beef cattle on the Eastern Shore, says regulations cost farmers money, and makes it harder for them to make a living. “The option is development which is quick, fast big money,” he says. “The next thing you know the farmers have disappeared.”

What it comes down to is manure—lots of it--and what to do with it.

The state is urging farmers to switch from commercial fertilizers to manure to help their crops grow. Its chock full of good stuff for the soil, like phosphorous. But there’s such a thing as too much phosphorous. And when excess phosphorous runs off the land into streams or the bay, it could lead to dead zones, where nothing can survive.

There are already rules on how to store manure and when you can spread it. State agriculture officials have been working on additional phosphorous regulations for a while and details are expected around the end of the year. Brian Spielman, Dairy Program Manager for the University of Maryland, says farmers are confused about what the state wants them to do. “It seems like every couple of years, the laws get stiffer and stiffer,” Spielman says. “And they change them sort of without talking about it to the farmers or discussing what they’re going to do.”

A big part of the phosphorous problem comes from the millions of chickens on the Eastern Shore. Angelique Livezey, the Superintendent of Poultry at the state fair, says farmers are already doing plenty, including going to the source, to reduce the amount of phosphorous in chicken manure. “They have enzymes in the feeds that they have been putting in for a while for phosphorous management,” Livezey says.

The new runoff regulations were proposed last year, then held up for revision when farmers complained they would cost too much. Environmentalists have criticized Governor Martin O’Malley for dragging his feet on putting the new regulations in place. Lieutenant Governor, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Anthony Brown says if he’s elected, he’ll bring environmentalists and farmers to the table to work something out. “The common ground here is everyone is committed to you know at least two things, right? A clean and healthy bay and a competitive agricultural community in Maryland,” Brown says.

“Great. So how do we achieve it?”

Brown’s rival in the election, Republican Larry Hogan, is counting on a lot of support from rural Maryland on Election Day. Hogan says farmers feel the O’Malley administration has ignored them, and blamed them too much for polluting the bay. Hogan says if elected governor, he’ll deep-six those new regulations if they put too much of a burden on farmers. “If they look anything like what happened last summer where it was going to decimate the entire agricultural community in Maryland, we would put a halt to them, put a stop to them immediately,” Hogan says.

But Washington County farmer Michael Creek says strict regulations are part of the price of farming in a state that has a natural resource like the bay. “I want to see more blue crabs coming out of the bay you know and the bay be healthy, just like they do,” Creek says. “And they want to see me be successful just like I do and take care and be responsible.”

Creek says while regulations are a headache, the state helps out with tax credits and cost sharing programs.