Maryland Senate Passes Agriculture Certainty Bill

3/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

Anyone who manages an operation that is subject to environmental concerns — specifically the release of nitrogen, phosphorus or sediment into the Chesapeake or coastal bays and their tributaries — has probably wished from time to time that the rules wouldn’t keep changing.

For farmers, the challenge is dealing with potential pollutants, multiple sources of excess nutrients and multiple agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment and local government.

But Maryland state Sen. Thomas McClain Middleton, D-Charles County, has a plan that might ease some of that uncertainty.

Middleton has proposed that agricultural operations be certified for 10 years at a time, based on the requirements in place at the time of certification.

At the request of farmers in his district, he held a series of meetings with all the stakeholders to work out a more manageable way to address the need for compliance with water-quality safeguards.

Senate Bill 1029 would establish a voluntary agricultural certainty program for Maryland.

The Maryland Senate passed the measure Monday. It will now head to the House.

Yates Clagett, president of the Prince George’s County Farm Bureau, likes the bill.

“I know Mack Middleton always has farmers at the front of his mind,” he said. “Legislation that comes out of his office is farmer-friendly.”

Clagett said he could understand the objections that some environmental groups may have, but he noted that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation endorses the bill. And he said he knows there were some compromises that took some of the original provisions out of the legislation.

“But what remains is a benefit to the farmer,” Clagett said. “How many farmers will jump on this remains to be seen.”

Under the bill, he said, farmers would not have to deal with every regulation that pops up during the the 10 years that the farm is certified.

“It contributes to the stability of the farming business,” Clagett said. “This allows the farmer to make plans for the future of his business — farming is a business like anything else and I don’t think everyone understands that. All these new regulations play into that.”

He said farmers have budgets like any other business, and it’s not always easy to accommodate changes for which they could not plan.

“Anything that creates stability and security is good for the farmer,” he said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has endorsed the bill, as has the Maryland Farm Bureau and Maryland Grain Producers. On its website, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation notes that farmers who participate in the voluntary certainty program will be going “above and beyond any current legal requirements.”

But a few environmental groups, notably the Sierra Club, Environment Maryland and the Audubon Society, are not satisfied with the confidentiality provisions of the bill. They want access to records of individual farms, saying that transparency is lacking.

“No one wants strangers coming into their house and riffling through (their) records,” Middleton said.

A certainty program is one way that other states have balanced farming and environmental issues.

Participation is voluntary, but farmers would still have to have nutrient management plans and employ best management practices to limit nutrient runoff.

Runoff from excess nutrients into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay depletes oxygen in water. When a body of water becomes rich in dissolved nutrients from fertilizers or sewage, it encourages the growth and decomposition of oxygen-depleting plant life and results in harm to other organisms. The process is called eutrophication.

One of the methods agriculture officials in various states have adopted to evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to reduce nutrient pollution is phosphorus indexing. Phosphorus is an essential element for plant growth. ensuring an adequate supply of phosphorus for crops often requires the application of fertilizer or animal manure.

Phosphorus, although not directly toxic, poses a danger when there is more of the nutrient than the crops can absorb or when rain water transfers the excess to surface waters. This can result in a decline in water quality that affects not only drinking water but fisheries, water use by industry, and recreational use of the bay and its tributaries because of the increased growth of undesirable algae and aquatic weeds.

Nitrogen and carbon are also associated with accelerated eutrophication, but the difficulty in controlling the exchange of these elements between the atmosphere and a water body, and fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by some blue-green algae makes these harder to measure.

That leaves phosphorus as the limiting element, and its control is of prime importance in reducing the decline of water quality.

Middleton said the designation of phosphorus as the index hits particularly hard on chicken and grain farmers.

Even before the Waterkeeper Alliance took Berlin, Md., poultry farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson to court over alleged pollution of surface water, which it erroneously attributed to improper storage of chicken litter, Maryland was working to develop ways to make farmers’ nutrient management task more manageable.

But there is no doubt that the lawsuit intensified the desire of Maryland farmers for some relief.

Maryland Department of Agriculture received a three-year $600,000 grant from USDA in 2012 to develop an agricultural certainty program in the state. MDA is using the grant to conduct on-farm assessments for compliance with total daily maximum load (TMDL) requirements and identify strategies to help agricultural operations achieve environmental protection standards required to participate in an agricultural certainty program.

MDA estimates that up to 5,000 agricultural operations in the state may be eligible to enroll in the agricultural certainty program proposed in the bill.

“Farmers want to know when they’ve done enough,” said Valerie Connelly, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau. “We believe the certainty bill helps answer that question for some farmers. In the end, farmers using the certainty program will do more, earlier, to help meet the bay cleanup goals.”

Last year, USDA signed an agreement with EPA and the state of Minnesota to develop a similar program that would increase the voluntary adoption of conservation practices to protect water quality. Several additional states have initiated agricultural certain programs, including Virginia.

During the 10-year period that the agricultural operation is certified, operators will file annual reports, much as they do now, for nutrient management. Certified inspectors also must do an on-site inspection at least every three years during the period of certification.

At the end of 10 years, inspectors will be required to notify farm operators of what they need to do to comply with any regulations put in place in the years since their initial certification.

After the third inspection in year nine of the agreement, Middleton said, inspectors will acquaint participants with changes that need to be made by the end of year 10.

A major benefit to farmers is reducing the frequency with which new nutrient management plans have to be developed. Depending on the availability of Natural Resource Conservation Service personnel, creation of a plan can be a major expense.

The certainty program also guarantees individual farmers some relief from oversight by nongovernmental organizations whose agenda does not include agricultural preservation.

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