A Maryland advisory committee urged state agriculture officials Friday not to hold up a regulation restricting the use of animal manure to fertilize farm fields, even though a study found the state was not prepared to deal with the excess manure that could result.

Poultry manure is widely used to fertilize corn and soybean crops on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (Dave Harp)

Officials with the Maryland Department of Agriculture had asked the 19-member advisory group whether, in light of the study by Salisbury University, it should grant a one-year delay in the restrictions being imposed in the coming year on more than 1,300 farms in the state. Most of the nearly 123,000 acres to be affected by the rule are on the Eastern Shore, where poultry manure is widely used to fertilize corn and soybean crops.

Memo Diriker, director of Salisbury’s Business Economic and Community Outreach Network (BEACON), repeated Friday what he had told committee members a month ago — that the state lacks the funding, trucks and storage facilities likely needed to collect and haul away the excess manure that growers would no longer be able to spread on fields.

The Phosphorus Management Tool regulation, adopted in 2015, restricts or bars outright the application of phosphorus on fields where there’s a risk that it will wash out of the soil into nearby streams and drainage ditches when it rains. Phosphorus, one of the nutrients contained in manure, is essential for plant growth, and farmers have traditionally relied on animal manure as a low-cost fertilizer.

But when it reaches local waterways, phosphorus feeds algae blooms and worsens the fish-stressing “dead zone” that forms in the Chesapeake Bay. In some places, manure has been repeatedly applied to fields in larger quantities than crops can use. As a result, phosphorus has built up in the soil there and poses a continual risk for polluted runoff.

Soil tests have found that 20% of the state’s 1.1 million acres of croplands contain so much phosphorus that they need to be regulated. Although there are hot spots in practically every county, more than three-fourths of the acreage with elevated phosphorus levels is on the Shore, and more than half is in the Lower Shore, according to state data.

So far, about 65,000 acres on 350 farms statewide have been affected by the restriction, which applied first to fields with the highest phosphorus levels in their soil. By the time the phase-in is complete on Jan. 1, 2022, the rule is expected to control manure use on about 228,000 acres on more than 1,600 farms statewide.

The state has set up a manure transport program that is hauling about 250,000 tons a year to other farms — some even out of state — where it can be safely spread on fields or put to other uses. Two-thirds of that waste comes from dairy farms in central and western Maryland, while the other third has come from Shore poultry growers.

The state provides $1 million annually to subsidize the transport, with another $400,000 contributed by poultry companies responsible for most of the 300 million birds raised there every year.

State officials have said there’s ample farm acreage elsewhere in Maryland — and even on the Upper Shore — where the excess manure could be safely applied with little risk of runoff because the soils do not have high levels of phosphorus.

But Diriker cautioned that much of that land may not be available, because at least some farmers who use commercial fertilizer are reluctant to spread manure on their fields, either because it requires different equipment or because they’re wary of the regulatory scrutiny that may come with it.

At a minimum, Diriker said, his Salisbury study predicted that the state would have to boost funding to subsidize manure transport and provide financial incentives to expand the private truck fleet now involved in hauling it. He projected $3.5 million might be needed annually over the next three years.

Farmers on the Lower Shore also have voiced concerns that they’ll be hurt financially by being forced to cut back or stop use of poultry manure and buy more expensive commercial fertilizer for their crops.

But Jeff Horstman, executive director of Shore Rivers, one of three environmental groups represented on the advisory panel, urged against delay. He acknowledged growers’ fears that many farm fields could be restricted or placed off limits for manure spreading, but he said that was the point of the regulation.

“Every river on the Eastern Shore continues to get worse in nutrient pollution,” he said. That pollution also exacts an economic impact on watermen, affecting their catch, and on tourism, where waters aren’t safe for swimming.

“If we vote to delay this, we’re going to send a powerful signal that our agency and our farmers cannot take care of the waste that the industry is producing today … If we can’t take care of it safely, how can we expand the industry?”

Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Democrat from Montgomery County, put it more bluntly. If the committee votes to delay the rule, legislators will be asking “how can we possible issue new permits” for poultry operations if the state and the industry can’t handle the current amount of manure.

“And I think that’s a terrifying prospect for a lot of folks in this room if the legislature takes that [tack],” Stewart said. He added that rejecting a delay would pressure the governor, lawmakers and industry to act promptly to deal with the potential problems cited in the Salisbury study.

Hans Schmidt, assistant MDA secretary, told the group that state officials were aware more funding and other steps are likely needed. The department is looking to increase its subsidy for transporting manure to safer locations, he said, and working with the Maryland Environmental Service to set up regional transfer stations for poultry manure needing to be moved. He said officials also are talking with the poultry companies about better coordinating the process.

Schmidt promised to report back to the committee in coming months, and he noted that it could still seek a delay next year if problems seemed to warrant it.

In the end, the committee voted 12 to 5, with two abstentions, to recommend against a delay. Representatives of farm groups and the poultry industry joined with environmentalists to oppose a hold up. The final decision is up to Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder, who attended the meeting but did not speak.

Virgil Shockley, a Worcester County farmer who represents the Delmarva Poultry Industry on the advisory committee, cast his vote against a delay, even though he said he personally believes many Lower Shore growers like him will suffer once the restrictions kick in.

Shockley said a majority of the poultry industry group’s board voted to oppose a delay because the companies were concerned that any holdup would be “bad PR” for the industry.

But then, emphasizing that he spoke only for himself, Shockley said he believed that on the Lower Shore, “you’re going to have manure piled up with nowhere to go.” He estimated that he’ll only be able to spread poultry litter, a mix of manure and wood shavings, on about 70 of the 300 acres of his home farm.

Environmental groups praised the committee for opposing a delay. They noted that the regulation had been held up repeatedly in years past to address farmers’ concerns before finally being imposed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015.

“With an important Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline bearing down on Maryland, it would have been irresponsible to delay — yet again — these critical pollution control regulations,” said Courtney Bernhardt, research director at the Environmental Integrity Project.  “There is no evidence that more stalling by the Maryland Department of Agriculture would have solved the main issue, which is that we have millions of tons more poultry manure than we need.”

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the rule has been working and her group hopes Bartenfelder follows the committee’s recommendation.

“If farmers are struggling to make changes, then large chicken producers should step forward and provide additional assistance to prevent poultry waste from becoming a pollution source,” she said.

State officials have said the best long-term solution for the excess manure generated by poultry growing operations on the Shore is to develop viable alternative uses. MDA has awarded nearly $6 million to eight projects statewide over the last five years to try technologies for converting manure into methane and potentially marketable fertilizer byproducts. The results so far have been disappointing.