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Department of Agriculture proposes phosphorus regs

(Dec. 19, 2014) Legislators in Worcester County are scrambling after the Department of Agriculture announced proposed regulations on phosphorus that could affect the majority of area farmers.

County and state lawmakers are calling for hearings to stall the new rules that would restrict how much chicken manure farmers can use to fertilize their crops.

The Worcester County Commissioners drafted a letter to Administra­tive, Executive and Legislative Review Committee Senate Chair Paul Pinsky and House Chair Samuel Rosenberg on Dec. 1, stating their concern with the potential economic impact from new regulations.

The Commissioners requested the state hold a hearing “to discuss the true fiscal implication that would result from the implementation of these regulations.”

“These regulations will have a major impact on the agricultural operations on the lower shore, particularly in Worcester County,” the commissioners wrote. The letter added that the infrastructure needed to relocate the manure in order to meet new mandates “does not exist on the shore today.”

New Worcester County Commissioner President Jim Bunting admitted he was still getting up to speed on the issue, but said the impact of the regulation “is going to be huge.”

“I’ve talked to poultry growers,” he said. “The cost of raising crops is going to increase drastically because you have to buy fertilizer. I think it’s estimated anywhere from $85 to over $100 an acre extra if you can’t use manure. And then there’s the cost of moving it and taking it other places, which the state can subsidize. I guess the taxpayers are going to bear that burden.”

Bunting said the county has not gotten a response since sending the letter, but stressed the urgency of action.

“The problem is if we don’t have a hearing before the new governor takes office it’s going to be a law,” he said.

Former District 4 Commissioner Virgil Shockley said he has targeted the AELR committee on numerous occasions.

“I championed that fight three times before, trying to get that and three times they didn’t hold it,” he said. “This is a very sensitive, touchy issue for the Eastern Shore. The economy of the entire shore, quite frankly, is at stake here.”

Proposed regulations came on the heels of an economic impact study conducted by Dr. Memo Diriker and the Business Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University. Diriker estimated a six-year phase in of regulations, designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay, would carry a projected cost of $22.5 million.

Shockley estimated the proposed regulations could affect 70-90 percent of farms on the Eastern Shore.

One of Shockley’s biggest problems with the study is the question of what happens to the manure. Diriker, in his study, suggested excess manure could be transported 50 miles offsite.

“If you start from Salisbury and drive 50 miles, how far do you get?” Shockley said. “This is what I don’t understand.  In order to do anything you’re going to have to send it out of the state of Maryland to get it out of the watershed.

“If it’s bad for the Chesapeake Bay in Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset County – and I’m not saying it is – what makes it not bad for the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot and Queen Anne’s and on up?” Shockley continued. “I don’t understand the logic on that. It’s like someone just gave you a certificate so you can hang it on the wall.”

Storing the manure, Shockley suggested, is out of the question.

“You’re talking about a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. “You got a hurricane come through, you got a good nor’easter come through, five or six inches of rain – on the Eastern Shore there’s no such thing as high ground. You talk about pollution, there’s where your pollution will come in.”

Shockley said he ran the numbers on using phosphorus-free manure on his own farm.

“It cost $108 an acre to me to replace what two tons of chicken manure would do on my farm with commercial fertilizer for a corn crop,” he said. “There are 45,000 acres in Worcester County and about half of that sees chicken manure. Multiply it out.”

Shockley said that number, spread out statewide and across six years, far exceeds the $22.5 million estimate. In Shockley’s scenario the cost for Worcester County alone exceeds $24 million.

“I don’t think $22 million will touch it, quite honestly,” he said. “I don’t think it’s even close.

“I had hoped that common sense would prevail on this and they would realize that they had no alternative in line in place, but my grandfather basically said it, ‘you don’t burn one bridge before you build another,’” Shockley continued. “These guys just struck the match and poured kerosene on it.”

District 38 Sen. Jim Mathias has tangled with phosphorus regulations for more than a year.

“I appreciate the county commissioner’s support, and working with them is exactly what’s it’s all about,” he said.

Mathias’ office sent letters to Maryland Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch three weeks ago, urging caution and calling for hearings. The senator also sent letters to the AELR chairs.

“We went on record early, and I’ve talked to some of the senators and delegates personally,” he said. “In addition to the political side I’ve been talking frequently with the industry and those that are representing the industry to try and make certain they tell us exactly where they want to go.

“Our goal is to get a hearing and put these regulations on hold, and there’s been a variety of approaches to that,” Mathias continued. “We’re putting our collective heads together trying to figure this out.”

Governor O’Malley previously tried to fast-track legislation on phosphorus restrictions in 2013. Mathias helped stall that effort, leading to a series of statewide hearings.

“We had a thousand farmers come out to talk about how adverse this would be and how costly this would be – how the science is not in place here,” he said.

After the hearings, Mathias introduced language in the budget calling for an economic impact study before new regulations went into effect.

“This is a huge, huge issue,” he said. “It’s very complicated. It’s very complex. To try and discuss this over a 30-day, 60-day, 90-day time period – let alone up against the clock when you’ve got a governor that’s going out on the 21st of January – is extremely difficult. Even after we’ve been dealing with it for a year-plus, the facts are just starting to come out.”

Mathias said he has sought help from interstate and federal leadership, as well as Governor-elect Larry Hogan.

“I had a very at-length conversation with [Hogan] last week,” Mathias said. “We spoke about this specifically, and I’ve been talking with his policy folks. They told me directly that they are opposed to these and I think they’re looking at the different options that are available to them.”

If no hearings are scheduled and no additional delays occur, the proposed regulations could go into effect as soon as Jan. 16.

“This is extremely, extremely vital,” Mathias continued. “If I’m ever going to go to war, I gotta go for my agriculture industry. This is critical to our district and our family farms.”

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