Holly Porter

(Jan. 3, 2020) The next step of the phosphorus management tool implementation continues to move forward at the state level, despite mixed reactions from Worcester County. The management tool Transition Advisory Committee voted on Dec. 13 to recommend to the Maryland Secretary of Agriculture to continue, rather than suggest a delay. 

Secretary of Agriculture Joseph Bartenfelder will make the final recommendation to Gov. Larry Hogan on whether to proceed with implementation or delay. Hogan will then make the final decision.

The Worcester County Commissioners sent a letter to Hogan in December to request a delay of 12 to 24 months based on the findings of an economic impact report conducted by Dr. Memo Diriker, director of Salisbury’s Business Economic and Community Outreach Network. 

The issue at hand is controlling how much chicken manure, or chicken litter, farmers apply to their fields. Chicken litter is made up of various organic materials, such as wood chips in bedding, and most importantly, nitrogen and phosphorus. 

“This is an organic fertilizer, which basically helps with plant growth because plants require nitrogen, phosphorus and other materials in order to be able to grow,” said Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry. 

She said if a farm’s field have been fertilized with poultry manure for years and years, then there is potential for nutrient runoff into the waterways. 

“It’s not a guarantee,” Porter said. “It’s not ‘it will.’ It has the potential.” 

The first two phases affected farmland with Fertility Index Value levels of 450 to 499 and then 300 to 449, respectively. This next one to take effect this year is for levels from 150 to 299, which according to the department of agriculture, includes 1,313 operations managing 122,705 acres. 

According to Frank Piorko, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays program, soil can only absorb so much nutrient matter. He added that when excess nutrients runoff into water systems, it fuels algae and reduces oxygen levels. 

“It upsets the natural levels in the water and can cause increases in harmful blooms,” Piorko said. 

Algae blooms and low oxygen levels can destroy marine life. 

Nutrient management plans are required so farmers — and others — know exactly what nutrients are being applied to fields. To strengthen these plans, the phosphorus management tool was introduced when Hogan took office in 2015. 

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the tool determines which areas have a high risk for phosphorus runoff and outline practices for oversaturated soils. The department said that “regulations are expected to help Maryland meet phosphorus reduction targets outlined in its Watershed Implementation Plan to protect and restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

According to Virgil Shockley, former Worcester County Commissioner and current representative for the Delmarva Poultry Industry on the transition advisory committee, fertilizer technology has improved in the last 10 years.

Currently, farmers can purchase fertilizer with their choice of how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potash is in it. Before then, fertilizer was sold in bulk with a set amount of ingredients. 

“Because we didn’t have any other choice, most of the land we have around here had high phosphorus levels before you started putting chicken manure on them,” Shockley said. 

Another factor is the weather. If it’s a dry year, phosphorus doesn’t get taken up, which Shockley said results in high levels. He questioned how there could be any runoff during a dry season. 

“You can make argument that some say it runs off,” Shockley said. “Others say it doesn’t run off if you have buffer stirps next to the ditches like most of us have. The problem is, nobody has proved it one way or the other.” 

Shockley said he was alarmed to hear that Diriker’s report revealed that the infrastructure and funding needed to remove excess manure is not yet in place, and neither is infrastructure for replacing lost nitrogen and alternative uses for excess manure. 

“When I was a commissioner for 16 years, 1998 to 2014, in a couple of those years, the agricultural section of Worcester County, money-wise actually beat the tourism section,” Shockley said. “That’s how much is at stake is here at the economic gain that is a piece of puzzle.” 

He added that a major financial issue is that some farmers will have to replace their manure with more expensive commercial manure. Meanwhile, the price for a bushel of corn has remained at $4 since 2000, while the cost of growing corn has risen by 40 percent. 

According to the department of agriculture, the manure transport program pays 87.5 percent of the cost of transporting dairy manure, while farmers pay the remainder. The total cost of transporting dairy manure in FY18 was $1,045,878, of which the state paid $592,002 and poultry farms paid $454,876. 

“The next phase may have some different impacts on farmers, specifically on the lower shore, but we’re not certain on that yet,” Porter said. “Until the phase occurs, we’re really not sure what the direct impact may be.” 

She said that for affected chicken growers that also have farm fields, they will either have to transport the manure to other fields where it can be applied or look into alternatives. The department is still determining possible alternatives, one being the mushroom industry, according to Porter. 

She agreed with Shockley that cost is one of the main issues, especially whether that falls on the farmer or the broker that receives the manure and transports it to other fields, as well as the cost for different equipment that may be necessary. 

“It’s a matter of transporting it to the fields that can use the fertilizer, and there are a number of acres out there, according to MDA numbers, that are able to do that and do not fall into any of these tiers and are under the 150 FIV that could utilize the manure as fertilizer,” Porter said. 

She said voting for a delay would not have helped the issue and that the Delmarva Poultry Industry is looking forward to working with other stakeholders to create an action plan. 

Exactly when the secretary of agriculture will make the final recommendation has not been determined.

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