A proposal by Maryland environmentalists for new regulations on farming — including a moratorium on big, new hog and chicken farms — is “an absolute formula for bankruptcy for many of our farmers,” an Eastern Shore lawmaker said.

Farmers, especially young farmers with big mortgages, are already struggling because of falling prices and regulations placed on them by the state in legislation passed last year to reduce the pollution of waterways by farming operations, said Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.

“To impose this on them would be devastating,” he said.

A three-year moratorium was proposed by two environmental groups, the Maryland Sierra Club and HAZTRAK Coalition, and the Delmarva Contract Poultry Growers Association, a small group of Eastern Shore farmers who raise chickens for the five big producers that operate on the Shore.

Christopher Bedford of the Sierra Club said the moratorium would apply to new operations and to expansions involving more than 50,000 chickens and more than 1,250 hogs.

While the moratorium was in place, the coalition would want the legislature to:

  • ban the use of manure lagoons except for dairy and beef cattle operations;
  • require poultry-producing firms, which own the chickens raised by contract farmers, to pay the full cost of disposing of manure; and
  • make clear that counties can adopt more stringent regulations than the state and federal governments.

Maryland lawmakers passed one of the nation’s toughest pollution runoff laws earlier this year, after an outbreak of pfiesteria, a toxic microbe, was blamed for killing thousands of fish off the Eastern Shore last summer.

Bedford said a moratorium makes sense because “we have excess production capacity right now on the Shore...”

“The moratorium would strengthen the hand of family farmers and help them to survive,” he said.

Christine Johnson, who, with her husband, runs an organic farm and raises 50,000 chickens under a contract agreement with Perdue Farms Inc., said a moratorium would be “the best thing that can happen for chicken growers.”

With foreign sales down and many chicken houses not being used on the Shore, new facilities would hurt farmers who already are struggling to survive, she said.

“Let’s pull back before we build anymore, before we have more wastes to dispose of. We feel that would not put any hurting on any farmer,” Ms. Johnson said.

Ms. Johnson is a member of the contract growers association. She said it is a small organization whose membership list is kept secret because many farmers fear retribution from the big companies if they go public with their complaints.

Meanwhile, Stoltzfus said the proposal that big companies such as Perdue pick up the cost of chicken waste disposal could drive the industry to another state where costs are lower and regulations less burdensome.

“Tennessee is saying, ‘Come on down here. We’ll give you all kinds of tax incentives’,” he said.

Many farmers who work under contract with the poultry firms could not survive without the money they get for raising chickens, Stoltzfus said.

“If even one of them leaves... farmers will get less money for their beans and corn,” he said.