The Maryland Department of Agriculture will offer a statewide series of meetings to explain its new phosphorus management tool.

The tool was designed to provide a better understanding of how phosphorus moves from field to water, where it can lead to algae blooms, and to help the state comply with its watershed implementation plans. Those plans must comply with the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, better known as the pollution diet.

The department was the host of a September meeting in Walkersville, Frederick County, to reach farmers in the western part of the state.

It has scheduled a meeting from 6–8 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center in Salisbury to reach those in the eastern part.

On Oct. 15, the meeting takes place at the Talbot County Community Center in Easton.

MDA spokeswoman Julie Oberg said the department expects the new phosphorus regulations to be published in the Maryland Register on Oct. 18. That will be followed by the customary 30-day public comment period.

The new regulations are expected to be in place by the end of this year.

“This transition period is going to be helpful,” said Royden N. Powell III, the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s assistant secretary for resource conservation. “We want to reach out and explain this new tool to everyone.”

Phosphorus has become a problem because when it gets into water it fertilizes algae, leading to blooms that can suffocate marine life. Thus, farmers must take care to not overapply the nutrient. The new management tool is intended to guide them.

For decades, scientists told farmers that excess phosphorus wasn’t a problem. It was thought that phosphorus bound to the soil and would not migrate to water on its own. But further study proved that false. Phosphorus not only entered water with eroding soil, but it also could dissolve and be carried by surface water, or travel in sub-surface flows to streams.

Phosphorus is a main ingredient in chicken manure, which is an inexpensive and popular fertilizer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, largely because the poultry industry generates it in vast quantities.

But farmers often apply the manure based on their crops’ nitrogen needs. And when they do that, they risk overapplying the phosphorus. In addition, many Eastern Shore fields already contain far more phosphorus than is healthy.

Maryland, like other states, developed its initial phosphorus index to address this issue. The index, which has been in use since 2005, tests the soil for plant-available phosphorus and assigns the soil a fertility index value. If the value is below 150, farmers can apply phosphorus as needed. But if it is above 150, they must use the P-index to determine where, and how much, they can apply.

The revamped index reflects new research on how phosphorus travels in sub-surface pathways.

Farmers are worried the new index could prohibit as many as half of the farms in the state from accepting any new manure. By August, farmers were already seeing the effects, said Valerie Connelly of the Maryland Farm Bureau. One worker who cleans out poultry houses suddenly had no farmers willing to take their manure.

Agriculture officials wanted to put the rules through on an emergency basis to have them in place for part of the 2013 growing season. But farmers protested that they didn’t have enough time to prepare for the changes.

So, the department pulled the emergency regulations and decided to put the rules through under the regular procedure.

Powell said the department is not changing the tool or how it works. But it is changing the timing of when it’s implemented. Until Oct. 2014, farmers will be able to use both the old and new indexes simultaneously. The old one will regulate their farming, but the new one will provide information to farmers and the department about phosphorus migration. That extra time will also allow the department to step up its efforts on manure-to-energy and manure transport programs, as well as its marketing and outreach to grain farmers and others who might want to use the chicken manure and haven’t in the past. At the farmers’ request, the department is also seeking to set up a temporary storage facility on the Lower Eastern Shore for farmers who need to clean out their chicken houses but have no place to put the manure.

Powell said the department met with farm groups and environmentalists to develop these changes. He said farmers are still concerned, but he hopes they will become more comfortable as they see how the new index works.

“We think that what we have is going to lead to a more effective implementation of the regulation, and ultimately, do what it’s supposed to do to improve water quality,” Powell said.

For information, contact the Nutrient Management Program at 410-841-5959.