The Maryland Department of Agriculture has neared the halfway mark of its tributary strategy goal of putting nutrient management plans in place on 60 percent of the state’s cropland by the year 2000.

What has helped make that possible, officials say, was a new program to train and certify private consultants to help write plans for farmers — an effort which may soon boost efforts in other states. The Executive Council has committed itself to making it easier for private consultants to practice in each of the Bay states.

In Maryland, as of June 1994, state-approved plans had been written for 507,000 acres of cropland. To help meet the 40 percent nutrient reduction goal in the tributary strategies, the state goal is to have plans implemented for 1.2 million acres by the turn of the century.

The voluntary effort gained speed this year, officials said, because plans for 122,500 acres were written by about 50 private consultants who had completed the state’s new certification and licensing program. By comparison, in the year ending June 30, the state’s 21 Cooperative Extension Service consultants developed plans for 85,400 acres.

“The willingness of the ag industry to fill the technical void and assist farmers as nutrient management consultants has made a huge difference,” said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis Riley. “What’s more, Maryland farmers have shown that they are willing to do their part on behalf of the Bay by enrolling in the program. Working together, we expect to meet our nutrient management goals through voluntary efforts within the next six years.”

Private consultants are expected to start playing a bigger role in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The general assemblies of both states have approved legislation to establish training programs that allow private consultants to be certified to write nutrient management plans that meet state specifications.

To help bolster that effort, the Chesapeake Executive Council — the top policy-making body for the cooperative Bay restoration effort — issued a directive at its October meeting for the three states to develop a “reciprocal certification program” for nutrient management professionals within the next near. That would mean that once certified in one state, a professional may be able to develop nutrient management plans in all three states.

Officials hope that by expanding the market available to them, more private sector consultants will want to write nutrient management plans.

Implementing nutrient management plans on farms is a major part of the tributary strategies developed in each state to reduce nutrient runoff into streams, rivers and, ultimately, the Bay. Farms are considered to be the largest single source of nutrients in the Chesapeake watershed. Excess nutrients in the Bay spur algae growth which blocks sunlight to important underwater grasses and depletes the water of oxygen needed by many Bay species.

Nutrient management plans reduce the potential for runoff by optimizing the amounts of manure and chemical fertilizers placed on a field. By analyzing variables such as soil type, the amount of plant residue left on fields, the content of manure and fertilizers, the type of crop being grown and other factors, consultants recommend the amount of fertilizers that should be used and when it should be applied. That reduces the potential to apply more fertilizer than is needed by the crops, also reducing the likelihood that excess fertilizer will be washed off the land. Proponents say the wise use of fertilizers helps farmers save money.

The main issue to be resolved in establishing reciprocal programs is reconciling requirements of different laws in the states.

For example, the nutrient management law approved in Pennsylvania last year calls for the plans to examine more issues than is the case in Maryland. Under Pennsylvania’s program, plans must address problems that may result from barnyards and other nutrient sources, as well as seeking the proper balance of nutrients placed on croplands.

While some private consultants are participating in a pilot project in Lancaster County, it is too early to say how many will participate in the program being developed under last year’s law, said Victor Funk, chief of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources’ Division of Nonpoint Source Management.

“They want to be a player and a participant, but we don’t know to what extent,” Funk said. “There probably won’t be the multitudes that Maryland is reporting because their type of nutrient plan is a whole lot different.”

In Virginia, where a training and certification program for nutrient management planners is also being developed, Russ Perkinson, nutrient management program manager for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the private sector involvement should help extend nutrient management efforts in the state.

The 10 DCR nutrient management field specialists annually develop nutrient management plans for more than 60,000 acres — an amount that may be doubled with the help of the new program, Perkinson said.

“Through the proper training and certification of private consultants, we will extend the benefits of the nutrient management program to even more farmers,” Perkinson said. “One result will be an improvement in the state’s water quality. In addition to providing farmers with tools necessary to become better stewards of their property, most plans also mean a cost savings to their operation.”

Tom Simpson, coordinator of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay agricultural programs, said the reciprocal certification program will likely cover only specific common elements. For example, someone certified in Maryland may have to get additional training to perform all the work required in Pennsylvania, or they may only be able to perform a portion of the total plan.

It would still make it easier for consultants to practice in more than one state, Simpson said. And there is clear interest from consultants in working in several jurisdictions, he noted. Of the first 117 private sector consultants certified for Maryland, 22 were from Delaware, 15 were from Pennsylvania, nine from Virginia, and one was from West Virginia. The remainder were from Maryland.

Simpson said those certified as consultants fell into three groups: they work for sludge application companies because Maryland requires a nutrient management plan for any farm where sludge is applied; they are individual consultants who work for themselves or small companies that provide independent technical support for farmers; or they work for fertilizer companies or cooperatives which increasingly are trying to market services to farmers in addition to selling products.

Other issues still remain. Some officials worry that private consultants may be more interested in pleasing the farmer who hires them — and assuring repeat business on plans which are routinely updated every two or three years — than giving the best advice.

There are also concerns about accountability. In Maryland, for example, there is no mechanism to assure that plans are actually being implemented and therefore helping the state achieve its nutrient reduction goal.

“We don’t check on the implementation of plans,” Simpson said. The department does spot checks of the consultants each year, in which the written plans are randomly checked to see if they fit regulations. But the check, Simpson said, is on how the plans are written, not whether they are implemented.

“There really is a good reason to believe that nutrient management plans are, if not 100 percent implemented, then very close to that,” Simpson added. “The reason is that these replace what we used to call their fertility management plan. It’s how they farm with respect to nutrients. They have got to follow something.”

Nonetheless, Simpson agreed that the state needs to find a way to determine that those assumptions are correct.

If the reciprocal nutrient management program proves successful, Simpson and others hope it will serve as a starting point to incorporate private consultants into a whole range of farm planning. Nutrient management would be only one of several “modules” that would make up an integrated “total resource management” plan for individual farms.

These plans would address different programs, such as pest management, nutrient management, soil management, forest management, and other issues in an integrated way. Right now, someone developing a pesticide management plan may recommend practices, such as certain cultivation techniques, that conflict with nutrient management recommendations.

Officials hope to eventually develop — and the Executive Council directed the states to evaluate — a series of reciprocal agreements that would certify private consultants to perform each of those tasks on farms. In such a scenario, a number of consultants would be available to write specific pieces of the new integrated plans, but the consultants would also have the training to make sure their components would not conflict with other recommendations being made to the farmer.

“It’s unlikely that one person would have all the expertise needed to do all the plans, and we don’t want to water the individual down to a generalist who can’t really supply the level of technical assistance that’s needed,” Simpson said. “But the goal of total resource management is to make sure that all those plans are working together, and are hopefully compiled in an as easy-to-use format as possible.”