State officials looking to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are weighing a series of new restrictions on how and when farmers can fertilize their fields — and on when municipal sewage treatment plants can spread their sludge on farmland.
Draft regulations drawn up by the Maryland Department of Agriculture are drawing fire from farmers and local officials, who say the limits being proposed are onerous, costly and unwarranted. But one scientist said they are backed by research and needed to reduce the pollution fouling the bay.
The rules, which have yet to be formally proposed, would, among other things, curtail the practice of fertilizing grain crops that are planted in the fall. They would also require farmers to keep livestock and fertilizer from 10 feet to 35 feet back from streams, ditches and ponds. And they would bar wintertime spreading of animal manure or sewage sludge, unless it's injected or worked into the soil to keep it from washing off.
Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance said the regulations have been under development for the past year to help Maryland comply with the bay pollution "diet" established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The six states that drain into the Chesapeake are being required to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment getting into the water by 20 percent to 25 percent by 2025.
But representatives of the state's growers say the restrictions could drive more of them out of business, particularly dairy and livestock farmers.
"This aspect of Maryland's pollution diet will end up starving our farming community," Sen. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, said. In a news release, he called it another example of the O'Malley administration's "war on rural Maryland," on top of proposals to restrict development using septic systems and to raise tolls on bridges, tunnels and highways.
"In the last 20 years we've lost half our dairy farms in the state," Glassman said in an interview. 'You can imagine what the extra cost of these regulations would be."
Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, called the draft regulations "hugely problematic" and said they would make it impossible for some to farm.
The proposal to limit fertilizing of grain crops planted in the fall is meant to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus washing off fields in winter and early spring. The state has budgeted more than $16 million to pay farmers to plant "cover crops" in the fall, which would soak up any nutrients left in the fields after the main crop has been harvested. But some farmers also plant grains in the fall for sale the next spring, and often fertilize those fieldsin the belief it would ensure a more abundant harvest.
Research done at the University of Maryland, though, shows that farmers can get the same yield on crops planted in the fall if they wait until spring to fertilize when there's less risk of it washing into nearby waterways.
But Connelly said the farm bureau thinks more study is needed before imposing that restriction.
"We're not saying the research is wrong," she said, "but we're saying there are farmers who get a result when they use fall fertilizer."
Farmers also question other provisions limiting when they can apply manure to their fields and requiring them to leave 10- to 35-foot setbacks from water.
"The farm community is viewing it as making it more and more difficult to raise livestock in the state of Maryland,'' Connelly said.
While state and federal funds are available to pay for up to 87.5 percent of the costs of putting up fence to keep livestock out of streams and to provide watering systems for farm animals, Glassman said some farmers can't afford to pay any more right now, and they feel put upon to do more to clean up the bay.
"We feel like we're already doing our part," said Glassman, who says he raises maybe a dozen purebred sheep. "Farming's on the wane," he added. "We just feel like we're carrying a heavier load than everyone else."
But Russell Brinsfield, executive director of the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology near Queenstown, said the proposed curbs are generally warranted. He called it a "bold move" by the state to propose changing the "nutrient management" regulations, and said he's not surprised they're getting "substantial blowback."
"We've done the easy things," he said, to limit farm runoff. "Now we're doing things that are going to have to be a little painful."
Brinsfield, also a farmer, defended the research showing little need to fertilize fall grain crops, saying it's "pretty conclusive." He also predicted that the change would save the state money it's now paying farmers, at the rate of $25 an acre, to plant crops in the fall that they intend to harvest for sale in the spring. Pure "cover crops," which aren't fertilized, are killed back in the spring with herbicide to provide nutrients for the next crop that's planted.
He also defended the stream setback requirements, saying that even though livestock dropping manure in streams is not a huge source of the nutrient pollution fouling the bay, "It's just not a wise thing to do."
"[Speaking] as a scientist, they all make sense," Brinsfield said of the draft rules. "Now whether you've got the political will … that's a whole different debate."
Farmers wouldn't be the only ones affected by the draft rules. The draft regulation would force an end by 2016 to spreading sewage sludge on farm fields in winter and impose other limits on its application to land other times of year.
Operators of sewage treatment plants said the limits would effectively bar them from putting sewage sludge on farm fields most of the year, forcing them to build costly storage facilities, dispose of it in landfill space or truck it out of state. Many of the state's counties and municipalities contract to have the treated sludge from their sewage plants trucked away and spread as fertilizer on croplands.
Anne Arundel County, for instance, estimates it would have to spend $30 million to build a facility large enough to hold all the sludge its sewage plants generate in winter, according to a letter from the Maryland Association of Municipal Wastewater Authorities. While some might be disposed of in landfills, those facilities can't accommodate all that's generated, the group says.
Association President Julie Pippel argued that the restriction is unwarranted, because state-financed upgrades of the largest sewage plants are reducing the nutrient content of the sludge.
Hance acknowledged that there were "flaws in the language" of the draft rules that are leading some farmers to conclude, wrongly, that they wouldn't be allowed to put horses, cows and other livestock out to pasture in the winter. He said state agriculture officials will correct and clarify such issues and weigh feedback before deciding what regulations to go forward with.
The rules also would have to be scrutinized by a joint legislative committee before being formally proposed.
Hance said many of the restrictions under consideration would not take effect for up to five years, giving farmers time to plan for them and adjust. As he often does, the agriculture secretary said farmers have already taken many steps voluntarily to reduce pollution from their fields and pasture. "But in this new age of [pollution diets], goals and deadlines," he added, "we're just trying to put in place a plan that helps the community reach its goals."