On the U.S. farm, necessity has always been the mother of invention. Maybe that’s part of the reason the poultry industry along the Arkansas and Oklahoma border has been able to reduce by 75 percent the amount of chicken manure it applies on farm fields in one watershed area.
Necessity in that case was a 2001 court case filed by the city of Tulsa against six poultry companies, upstream municipalities and others. The case, ultimately settled in 2003, claimed excess poultry manure was contaminating city drinking water drawn from the Eucha/Spavinaw watershed. Finding that there were not adequate provisions in statute or regulation, the judge set a limit on soil phosphorus above which no more manure could be applied.
Maryland could learn something from those states. We can achieve all our goals. We can require our chicken growers on the Eastern Shore to reduce the amount of excess manure they apply to crop fields, and we can do it without putting farmers out of business or forcing the poultry industry to flee the region. We can come together to tackle this problem. We don’t need a judge, but we need a nudge. We need legislation to prompt action.
For the past few years, Maryland chicken growers have been concerned by the prospect of the regulatory tool known as the Phosphorus Management Tool. The tool is a method developed over 10 years by University of Maryland agriculture scientists that allows farmers to assess the level of phosphorus in their soils so that they can apply the correct and safe amount of manure to their fields.
Maryland wanted to require farmers to use the tool because excess manure application on the Shore causes the same problem in the Choptank, Nanticoke and the Chesapeake as it does in the Eucha/Spavinaw watershed: eutrophication, or slow death, of the water system from lack of oxygen. But the opposition claimed to anyone who would listen that the regulation would cost too much to implement, and that the large poultry companies would up and leave the state.
Gov. Larry Hogan listened. Just hours after taking office, he pulled the regulation before it went into effect. Now the General Assembly is considering a proposed bill that would accomplish the same thing as the shelved regulation.
How unfortunate. We know we need less manure applied to Eastern Shore fields. The Maryland Department of Agriculture estimates 228,000 tons of excess poultry manure are applied each year on the Shore. You might say it’s a manure crisis. That’s the necessity that should be driving invention. With the phosphorus tool in place, we could move on to finding cost-efficient ways to reduce manure application. Instead, we’re back at square one, essentially quibbling over the measuring cup we’ll use to bake a cake. With no regulatory option, we must rely on a legislative one.
The good news is that there is such an option. Legislation now before the General Assembly, SB 257 and HB 381, provides six years for us to work out a means to bake that cake. Arkansas and Oklahoma effectively did it in four years. The Western states worked out a plan to truck excess manure out of Eucha/Spavinaw to areas in need of manure.
This is not to say trucking manure out of your watershed is a magic bullet solution. Maryland already redistributes some excess litter, although not nearly enough. The point is the Western states worked out a viable solution without crippling the farming industry. The right amount of manure is now spread on fields. The poultry companies were an integral part of the solution. They should be in Maryland, as well, where the solution could include increased manure redistribution and the widespread use of technologies that extract and use the phosphorus for various purposes.
In fact, we’re in far better shape than Arkansas and Oklahoma were at this stage of the game. We have the measuring tool for phosphorus. We don’t need a judge to set application limits. Hogan has put funding in his budget that can help with implementation. What we need is legislation. Arkansas and Oklahoma learned that sometimes we all need a push to do the right thing. Years of failed attempts at a voluntary, collaborative solution prompted Tulsa to file its lawsuit. Necessity resulted. Innovation followed. We can do this.