A much-debated farm pollution regulation is set to take wider effect soon in Maryland, stirring growing anxiety among farmers and environmentalists alike. Those concerns could put the rule on hold next year.
The state’s Phosphorus Management Tool rule, adopted in 2015, aims to reduce the risk of polluted farm runoff by limiting how much manure farmers can use to fertilize certain fields.
Only about 100 farms have been affected so far, as the restrictions are being slowly phased in through 2022. But the number of farms that must comply with the rule is set to jump significantly in 2019.
Phosphorus, essential for plant growth, is one of the nutrients contained in manure. But when it reaches local waterways, it feeds algae blooms and worsens the fish-stressing “dead zone” that forms in the Chesapeake.
The Maryland regulation restricts or bars outright the application of phosphorus on fields where there’s a risk that the nutrient will wash out of the soil into nearby streams and drainage ditches when it rains.
But if farmers have to limit use of free– or low-cost manure on their fields, they would need to buy more expensive chemical fertilizers to apply adequate levels of other nutrients, such as nitrogen, that are needed to grow their crops — something that impacts their bottom line.
Virgil Shockley, who raises chickens, corn and soybeans near Snow Hill in Worcester County, called it “a potential disaster in the making.” The restrictions couldn’t come at a worse time, he said. Growers are struggling financially with the poorest harvest they’ve had in a long time because of unrelenting rains, and crop prices are the lowest they’ve been in years, in part because of the U.S. trade dispute with China.
So far, only about 100 farms at the highest risk for generating phosphorus pollution have been affected by the rule, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture — fewer than 10 percent of the number of farms that could ultimately be impacted.
Starting next year, the rule will apply to at least 250 more operations that have fields with somewhat less elevated phosphorus levels, state figures show. And in two years, the coverage will expand again, with the rule eventually expected to apply to approximately 228,000 acres on at least 1,661 farms.
While that’s just about a fifth of the 1.1 million acres of cropland in Maryland, the impact will be felt unevenly. More than three quarters of the acreage with elevated phosphorus levels is on the Eastern Shore, and 56 percent is in just three counties that make up the Lower Shore.
In Maryland, the Shore’s poultry industry, which generates phosphorus-rich chicken manure, is the reason for the rule’s disproportionate impact there. The poultry litter — chicken waste mixed with wood shavings —
that has been repeatedly applied as fertilizer typically contains more phosphorus than the crops can use, so it has built up in the soil. On the Lower Shore, soil tests reported to the state indicate that two-thirds of the cropland has elevated levels of phosphorus.
Reg could be costly for farms
Shockley’s is one of the farms already affected by the rule. He said he spent $4,000 to $5,000 this year to buy commercial fertilizer for a pair of cornfields where the regulation prohibited him from using the chicken litter produced on his farm. Between the added fertilizer cost, low yields and poor markets, he figures he lost $10,000 on those fields.
Shockley fears the impact of the regulation as it spreads to more fields and other farms. “You’re going to have some people go down,” he warned.
Environmentalists say they’re worried as well. They want to see more evidence that the MDA is tracking compliance with the rule. They’re also questioning whether the state is doing enough to help farmers deal with the regulation, mindful that a lack of preparation could delay or derail its steady rollout.
“I have a great deal of concern,’’ said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and environmental advocate in the Maryland General Assembly. “I would like to be confident that the fields are not being overfertilized and running into the Bay.”
He acknowledged, though, that the state’s farmers have thin profit margins and can’t afford to shoulder much higher costs.
“I don’t want them to have to pay out of pocket,” said Pinsky. “But we have to figure out a way to move the chicken litter to a place it’s not going to do harm to the Bay and the tributaries.”
Under the regulation, a farmer must use the management tool to assess the risk that phosphorus could leach or run off a field. Developed by University of Maryland researchers, the tool is a set of calculations for quantifying that risk, which factors in the phosphorus level, soil type, slope of the field and its proximity to surface water. Some phosphorus-rich fields may pose little risk, while some with relatively lower levels of the nutrient could still be prone to pollute.
Farmers fought restrictions on phosphorus for years, and Gov. Larry Hogan campaigned in 2014 on a pledge to block the regulation put forward by his predecessor, Martin O’Malley. Hogan promptly withdrew it once he took office, but about a month later reinstated it. He extended the phase-in — seven years instead of six — and pledged to pull it back again if it looked like farmers would face serious financial losses. Farmers finally accepted it, saying they trusted Hogan to take care of them.
Too early to gauge impact
With relatively few farms affected to date, the regulation’s reach is not widely felt. Lindsay Thompson, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, recently canvassed her board of directors, who told her, “they don’t really feel like they’re far enough along in the process to really say how it is going to impact them.”
But some farmers, fearing the changes ahead, are reviving questions about the justification for the rule.
“I’ve still got heartburn having to agree to what I agreed to,” said Charles Wright, president of the Wicomico County Farm Bureau. Though the rule is the product of more than a decade’s worth of research, Wright said he believes it’s “more political science than actual science.”
Wright said none of the 800 acres that his family farms has particularly high levels of phosphorus, but he knows a few other farms that have been affected.
“It’s going to be a huge financial burden,” he predicted, especially if the price farmers can get for corn remains so depressed.
Two years ago, state officials looked at eight farms to see how the phosphorus rule might affect them. On one poultry farm, they found that the cost of raising corn went up by nearly a third, from $91 per acre to $123.
Hans Schmidt, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said state officials are monitoring the phase-in of the rule and so far have seen nothing alarming.
“We feel pretty good where we’re at,” said Schmidt, who is himself a farmer in Queen Anne’s County. “We’ve got a good handle on where high-phosphorus soils are in the state [and] on how farmers are handling it.”
Statewide in 2017, Maryland poultry growers produced 307 million birds, which in turn generated about 400,000 tons of manure. Because some farmers will be using less poultry manure for fertilizer, growers will likely need to find other places — and other ways — to use it. Some recent changes in industry practices may be easing the challenge, Schmidt said.
Perdue Farms, for instance, has shifted from having its growers clean manure out of poultry houses annually to doing it every three years, according to a company spokesman. Some growers are doing a “crust-out” between flocks, removing the top layer of litter and putting fresh wood shavings on top of the remainder. But based on 2017 data from the MDA, those changes have not reduced the overall amount of poultry manure being produced.
For growers who can no longer spread chicken litter on their own fields — or, in the case of many newer growing operations, have no crop fields at all — Schmidt said it appears they’re still able to find someone to take it off their hands. Based on soil sample data collected by the state, there are more than enough acres, particularly on the Upper Shore, where phosphorus levels are low enough to safely use the manure.
For several years now, Maryland has had a manure transport program through which all types of animal waste can be hauled from the farms that generate it to farms that can use it for fertilizer. The poultry industry kicked in about a fourth of the $1.6 million spent by the state trucking animal waste in fiscal 2017, according to the MDA.
In all, 249,000 tons of manure got moved in fiscal year 2018, but three-fourths of that came from cows and other livestock, not from poultry houses. Of the 400,000 tons of poultry litter generated that year, less than 20 percent got moved by the state program. Private haulers are handling the transport of most of the poultry manure, Schmidt said.
Where is all the litter going?
Environmentalists say they’d like to know where all of the litter is going and be shown that it’s being safely used elsewhere.
“The lack of transparency and accountability on these [phosphorus] regulations has been frustrating,” said Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, which monitors water quality issues on the Lower Shore.
Some worry that trucking the manure to other fields is setting them up to become sources of phosphorus pollution in the future.
“We really want to get a grip on these private haulers, what they’re moving how much they’re moving and where they’re moving it, to make sure it’s being safely applied, said Matt Pluta, the Choptank Riverkeeper, part of the ShoreRivers watershed group.
State officials say poultry growers must report how much manure they’re shipping off-site, and farmers who take it must report that, too.
But Schmidt said the state so far has not compiled data on those privately arranged movements. He noted that state rules bar its use on any field unless the phosphorus level is well below what’s considered elevated.
From the fall of 2017 into early 2018, state inspectors checked 26 farms that had been immediately banned from putting any more on phosphorus-saturated fields. Two were cited for overapplication and other issues, but the rest had records indicating they had complied.
Though private haulers and the state seem able to handle the current volume of manure being shipped off farms, some are concerned that they won’t have the capacity to deal with a sudden increase in demand for transportation.
In response to queries from Pinsky, MDA Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder wrote that the Hogan administration believes it has enough funds budgeted to handle manure transport through June 2020. That may change afterward, Bartenfelder said, when another 122,000 acres of farm fields come under the regulation.
Should transportation not prove a viable option for all of the manure that can no longer be used, the state has been encouraging alternative technologies. The MDA has invested $5.8 million in pilot projects evaluating the feasibility of composting manure, processing it to generate heat or electricity and separating the phosphorus from the other nutrients. The largest proposal to date would still only handle a fraction of the Shore’s poultry litter.
It’s not clear how sustainable large-scale alternatives can be, either. For more than a decade, Perdue AgriRecycle, a subsidiary of the Salisbury-based poultry company, offered to clean out chicken houses for free and process the litter into dry pellets for use by farmers, gardeners and turf managers. But the company wound up having to buy litter and never made a profit, spokesman Joe Forsthoffer said. The pelletizing plant has been mothballed, and the company has replaced it with a smaller composting operation, which takes other wastes as well.
Some growers say they fear the businesses selling commercial fertilizer won’t be able to satisfy a big jump in demand as more farms cut back on use of manure. And others, including environmentalists, worry that the state has not anticipated all the issues associated with implementing the rule.
“I would like to see a fuller discussion of the resources needed to implement this [rule],” said Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “I worry that we’re not anticipating the problems or digging in and projecting the quantities,” she said
“We can probably get by next year,” Shockley said. It’s the year after, when the acreage jumps again, that worries him.
In the meantime, Shockley said he was hoping the weather would clear up enough before December so his soybeans could dry out enough to get a decent price once harvested. In mid-November, with rain falling every few days, he didn’t sound optimistic.
“It’s been a perfect circle this year,” he said, ‘‘as far as what could go wrong has gone wrong.”
As he spoke, he opened an envelope he’d just received in the mail and discovered he didn’t get the already depressed price for a truckload of soybeans he’d recently harvested. Because of the dampness, they weren’t dry enough to be top quality. He figured he’d lost $300 on that load.
“The question becomes: Do you really want to put farmers out of business?” he asked “The other question is: Do you want to eat tomorrow?”
Pinsky, the environmental lawmaker, said he’s still searching for a “win-win situation.” But he’s against taking a timeout on the phosphorus regulation to find it.
“If we delay it, and we save the farms and kill the Bay, then the watermen are not going to have jobs,” he said. “People are not going to boat on the Bay. It’s one sector of the economy versus another. …It’s a devil’s choice, and I think it’s wrong.”