Maryland Ag Official Helps Farmers Live Under the Microscope

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

SALISBURY, Md. — Farmers who are good neighbors will improve agriculture’s image and minimize complaints from the nonfarming public.

So said Tony Riggi, the CAFO/MAFO coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. And he should know.

Riggi told attendees at a recent agronomy day in Salisbury that his job has two major goals: help farmers prepare for inspection and permitting, and deal with public complaints about some of the byproducts of farming.

There are new nutrient management regulations and it’s important to comply with the details, Riggi said. Both confined animal feeding operations (CAFO), which result in some sort of pollutant discharge, and Maryland animal feeding operations (MAFO), which do not, require permits. The two kinds of permits have different rules.

Riggi started his presentation by defining “that dirty word: pollution.” With regard to local agriculture, that means nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. “There are other pollutants, but those are the ones that directly impact water quality.”

Public perception is influenced by a lack of understanding about food production, but it doesn’t usually reach the level of a complaint until something smells.

“Everybody has a digital camera or cellphone that can take pictures,” Riggi said, noting the point of his presentation was “to make farmers aware that they are under the microscope and that some folks are quick to pounce on things they see and don’t understand.”

Because he is the one to whom community complaints about a farm operation are routed, his presentation included a lot of practical suggestions for farmers to help them prevent these calls.

An important consideration is the difference between point- and nonpoint-source pollution, he said. Point-source can be traced. When a farmer can avoid being the source, it’s good for the farmer and for agriculture’s image. For that reason, he suggested that farmers be careful not to overload their trucks when transporting manure. When manure falls off the truck, it becomes point-source pollution.

Complaints generally fall into four categories: agronomic, livestock, manure and odor. Chesapeake Bay area residents are particularly sensitive to activities that have water quality implications, he said.

Runoff from crop fields, nurseries and greenhouses, or evidence of soil erosion, concerns farm neighbors. Farmers can eliminate or minimize these concerns by implementing some practical management practices.

“Don’t plant too close to the ditch,” Riggi said.

Planting the ditch bank can create erosion problems, he said, recommending a two-foot setback be applied on all ditches. Farmers seeking to maximize crop volume are sometimes surprised when Riggi points out that a two-foot setback has to extend along four miles of ditches before the farmer loses one acre of cropland.

That leads to Riggi’s second suggestion: “Don’t scalp the vegetation on ditch banks.” Setting the mower 6 to 8 inches high reduces the potential for erosion, he said.

He also recommended farmers avoid tilling their fields in winter months to decrease the potential for erosion. If there is a reason to till, such as disease suppression, then plant a cover crop.

Another concern is livestock, Riggi said. Most of us like to eat them but might find the process of bringing them to our tables annoying if they are right next door. The new state regulations require that animals be kept out of ditches, streams and the bay. This may require fencing to keep the animals on dry land.

“Part of the newly released nutrient management regulations is that you have to keep livestock out of the stream and if that was their water source you can get cost-share on the fencing and to run a watering operation from the state,” Riggi said.

Other livestock-related concerns are improper disposal of dead animals and improper feed storage, Riggi said.

“When using processing wastes, such as sweet corn caps, vegetable wastes, etc., as feedstocks, use similar precautions to the ones used for stockpiling of manure. These materials are high in nutrients and water content which create a potential for pollution,” he said.

Some of the most important best management practices are those that can be employed to minimize odor, Riggi said. Functional issues include manure storage, transport, stockpiling and land application, all of which have the potential to impact water quality.

Store manure properly until it’s time to spread it, he said. Appropriate storage facilities are usually roofed concrete pads. If you can’t store the manure under roof, then follow stockpiling guidelines.

Poultry litter is dry and stackable, but these pads are not sized for whole house cleanout. That requires hauling the excess to field to be stockpiled, he said. CAFO operations have 14 days to stockpile manure outside uncovered. MAFO permit holders who farm their own ground have 30 days before they have to cover.

Farmers often use tarps or heavy-duty plastic, weighed down with tires. Farmers have told Riggi that it’s best to use a dark, opaque plastic. If you use clear plastic, the birds will come and poke holes in it when they see something that interests them. Then you aren’t covered.

Only farmers who import manure — meaning it is not produced as part of their operation — can stockpile it until the following spring and then use it or remove it from the site, Riggi said.

Beef or dairy waste, much of it liquid, is more difficult to handle under the new nutrient management regulations that went into effect Oct. 15. Additional regulations are being phased in.

Surprisingly, most odor complaints do not result from manure and often do not involve water quality concerns, Riggi said. Primarily, they concern the use of soil conditioners or soil amendments, which might include packing house/cannery waste, processing plant waste or industrial waste. In these instances, the complaints are often routed to MDA through local county offices or the local health department.

“All soil amendments and conditioners must be registered through the Maryland State Chemist’s office, annually, or if the composition of the material changes,” Riggi said.

Most amendments and conditioners may not be stockpiled. These products should be land applied and incorporated as they arrive on site, Riggi said.

“If you would not put these products on your home farm, you probably shouldn’t use them,” he said.

Examples include clam biscuits, made from the little bits that are left over after claims are processed into clam strips. “Good nutrition, but foul smelling,” he said.

“Another example is treated sewage sludge that has to be incorporated quickly to prevent odors,” Riggi said. “It may not be a water quality issue, but it can be a nuisance problem.”

For more information, contact Riggi at 410-677-0802, extension 6.

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