A Maryland advisory group has called for extending restrictions on the use of manure to fertilize farm fields, even though some warn the anti-pollution regulation could cause problems for the state’s poultry growers and municipalities.

The committee advising the state Department of Agriculture voted 11–3 Monday to proceed with the final phase-in of the manure application limits, which are to take full effect next year on more than 1,300 additional farms in the state.

Poultry litter is cleared from a storage building for transportation to fields where it can be used as fertilizer with less threat of polluting local waterways. Credit: Jeremy Cox / Bay Journal Media

The state’s Phosphorus Management Tool rule, imposed in 2015, aims to reduce the risk of polluted farm runoff by limiting how much manure farmers can use to fertilize certain fields. Growers have long relied on animal manure as a low-cost crop fertilizer, but through repeated application over many years the phosphorus in manure has built up in many fields. Rainfall and snowmelt can wash it into local waterways, where it can feed algae blooms and worsen the Chesapeake Bay’s low-oxgen “dead zone,” which is stressful to marine life.

The state has been phasing in the phosphorus limits over the last five years, applying it first to those fields most saturated with the nutrient. The final stage of the rule takes effect July 1, 2021. State Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder must decide by Dec. 31 whether to go ahead with it or delay it for one year.

Most of the nearly 123,000 acres covered by the phosphorus rule extension are on the Eastern Shore, where poultry manure is widely used to fertilize corn and soybean crops.

Farmers had fought restrictions on their use of manure for years, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan had campaigned in 2014 on a pledge to block a phosphorus regulation imposed by his Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley. Hogan did so, but ultimately reinstated it with an extended phase-in and pledged to suspend it if it caused serious problems for farmers.

Soil data show there’s more than enough farmland on the Eastern Shore low enough in phosphorus to safely take all of the manure that’s generated there, state officials say. But some farmers on the Lower Shore, which has the most phosphorus-laden farm fields, began warning in 2018 that there could be trouble with the increasing restrictions.

Then last year, a Salisbury University study concluded that the state was not prepared to deal with the excess manure that could result. The state-commissioned study found that there weren’t enough trucks and storage facilities to collect and haul away the manure that some growers could no longer spread on their fields. It also questioned whether there were enough alternate locations or uses for the manure.

State officials vowed to address the shortcomings identified by the Salisbury study, and the advisory committee voted 12–5 in December to support continuing the regulatory phase-in. Some who voted against the delay then said they did so to avoid public criticism and legislative recriminations.

State officials did support Maryland’s manure transport program this year by adding $1 million in funding and raising payments to haulers. With additional funding provided by poultry companies like Perdue and Tyson, the program pays to truck manure from chicken farms where it’s generated to crop growers who have fields relatively low in phosphorus. The amount of poultry manure moved through the program increased to nearly 84,000 tons last year, out of 329,000 tons overall generated by poultry operations in 2019, according to state data.

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The state also has awarded millions of dollars in grants to test technologies that would generate energy from manure through anaerobic digestion and other means. Even the most promising of those is still a pilot project that has yet to operate on a large scale, officials acknowledge.

Some at Monday’s advisory committee meeting said they’re worried that too little is being done too late to ensure a relatively smooth transition for farmers.

Ray Ellis, owner of the largest manure transport company on the Delmarva Peninsula, said he’s been having a hard time finding new landowners willing to take shipments of poultry manure when chicken farmers need to get rid of it, and there aren’t enough places to store it in the meantime. He said he’s been turning down chicken growers’ requests for him to clean the manure out of their chicken houses because there’s no place to put it.

“Anything we can do to delay this thing, we are not ready for it yet,” he said.

Other committee members noted that some chicken farmers can’t get state help moving their manure because participation is limited to those raising birds for poultry companies that help finance the transport program.

“I’m just not seeing the guarantee… that this is all going to work,” said Charles Wright, a Wicomico County farmer. “What’s the safety net for growers that this manure is going to get moved?”

Similar concerns have been raised about whether the phosphorus restrictions could also hamper the use of “biosolids,” or treated municipal sewage sludge, on farms. Biosolids also contain phosphorus. The committee member representing the industry that contracts with municipalities to spread biosolids on fields voted to recommend a delay, as did a representative of the Maryland Farm Bureau and Ellis, the manure transport broker.

After the meeting, the Delmarva Chicken Association, which opposed the delay, released a letter to Maryland’s agriculture secretary calling for the state to step up its efforts to ensure that phosphorus restrictions don’t cause problems.

Holly Porter, the industry group’s executive director, noted that poultry companies had increased their funding for manure transport and tried to find more landowners willing to take manure. Her group even developed an online app to help connect those needing to get rid of manure with those in the market for it. She urged the state to pursue its own outreach and to provide more financial help to farmers, in particular to build manure storage sheds and get equipment needed to spread manure on fields.

Hans Schmidt, an assistant MDA secretary, pledged to prioritize increased financial aid and to keep state officials working to avoid or ease any problems.

“This is not the end all be all,” he said. “We’re looking at, as time evolves, making those changes, making those adaptations to address the situation.”

This article originally published on December 15, 2020 on BayJournal.com.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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