The recent changes in Pennsylvania’s nutrient management regulations are turning back years of improvements in agricultural best management practices. At issue is the requirement that growers who use manure from other farmers have a nutrient management plan. These plans, which may cost several hundred dollars per farm, put manure at an economic disadvantage with other fossil fuel-based fertilizer.

To fully understand the problem, we must first clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding manure. Manure is a natural, organic, homegrown fertilizer that has been used for years.

Manure nitrogen replaces the need for synthetic fertilizers, which are made from natural gas It then takes enormous amounts of fossil fuels to transport and distribute that fertilizer to remote farm fields across the country. All the while, fertilizer trucks are spewing nitrogen-laden exhaust into the air and onto our watersheds.

Manure, on the other hand, is generally produced near the area where it is needed and is spread quickly and efficiently.

Another misconception about manure is that we have more than ever before in Pennsylvania. In 1904, we had 3.3 million animal equivalent units compared with 2.2 million animal equivalent units today. We have half as many dairy cows in 2004 as we had in 1904. We are down 437,000 horses and mules and have 790,000 fewer sheep. There were no significant changes in swine numbers and beef cattle numbers are up about 300,000. So we actually have less manure today than 100 years ago.

Well, they say, we certainly have fewer acres than we had 100 years ago. While that is true, we grow more than twice as many bushels of grain and use twice as many nutrients than we did 100 years ago. The major nutrient management change that has occurred in the past 100 years hasn’t been in the amount of manure or reduction of crops grown. It has been in the concentration of animals on livestock-intensive farms.

This is why our efforts in Lancaster County over the past 20 years have been to spread the manure from livestock-intensive farms to neighboring crop-intensive farms. This has helped the sustainability of our small, family-owned farms, reduced our dependence on foreign energy sources and improved the quality of our watersheds.

So as an environmentalist, I am appalled at the way our “environmental” agencies are trying to undo years of work in this area. The ridiculous assumption is that farmers will buy more manure than they need so that they can pollute the environment.

This is an absurd assumption. This is like assuming that all consumers will go to the store and buy five gallons of milk even though they only need one. They will then take the milk home, drink one gallon and throw the rest in the river.

Should we require milk drinkers to spend $500 to develop a milk buyers plan that says they will only buy the amount of milk that they can drink? Farmers who use manure from other farmers are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution.

In the mid 1980s, agriculture was responsible for 80 percent of the nonpoint nitrogen entering the Bay. Today, the figure is down to 40 percent. Either farmers have reduced the amount of nonpoint nitrogen entering the Bay by 75 percent or other sources have increased. I suspect some of both has occurred.

Either way, the fact remains that the educational efforts of Penn State Cooperative Extension and others have been successful. Regulations in this area have been more of a hindrance than help.

Pennsylvania’s proposed nutrient management regulations would be fine in states where 2,000-cow dairies and 20,000-head sow operations are more common. For large operations, the cost of complying with these regulations is relatively insignificant when spread over 2,000 head of cattle. But small, “plain community” farmers may be forced out of business by the cost of complying with these regulations.

Several years ago, I participated in a pilot study with Penn State studying the economic impacts of phosphorus-based nutrient management plans on small farms. The farmer I worked with fed his family by raising 75 sows and feeding 50 steers. He had all of the recommended soil conservation practices in place, was using no commercial fertilizer and was properly managing his manure. The cost of his nutrient management plan would have been $2,000. His net income that year was a little more than $5,000. That was a difficult year to be farming. Pennsylvania’s new nutrient management regulations will force him to make some difficult decisions.

Development pressure will help to financially cushion his inevitable decision, but it will not improve the health of the Bay.