Poultry growers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore will be increasingly impacted by Maryland’s phosphorus regulation, which aims to restrict the amount of manure that can be spread on some farm fields. (Dave Harp)

Memo Diriker, director of Salisbury’s Business Economic and Community Outreach Network (BEACON), told a Maryland Department of Agriculture advisory committee Friday that the state lacks the funding and infrastructure to haul away or treat the excess manure next year when 1,300 farms are to come under a regulation limiting how much phosphorus-rich animal waste they can spread on their fields.

“Are we ready to make the transition now?” Diriker asked at the conclusion of his presentation. “Based on this, no.”

The state’s Phosphorus Management Tool rule, adopted in 2015, aims to reduce the risk of polluted farm runoff by controlling how much manure farmers can use to fertilize fields. Phosphorus, which is essential for plant growth, is one of the nutrients contained in manure. But when it reaches local waterways, it feeds algae blooms and worsens the fish-stressing “dead zone” that forms in the Chesapeake Bay.

Farmers have traditionally relied on animal manure as a low-cost fertilizer to feed crops both nitrogen and phosphorus. But in some places, manure has been applied in larger quantities than crops can use. As a result, phosphorus has built up in the soil there and poses a continual risk for polluted runoff.

Soil tests have found that 20% of the state’s 1.1 million acres of croplands contain so much phosphorus that they need to be regulated. Although there are hot spots in practically every county, more than three-fourths of the acreage with elevated phosphorus levels is on the Shore, and more than half is in the Lower Shore, according to state data.

The Maryland regulation restricts or bars outright the application of phosphorus on fields where there’s a risk that the nutrient will wash out of the soil into nearby streams and drainage ditches when it rains.

Farmers fought such restrictions for years, questioning their need and contending that the higher cost of commercial fertilizer could make farming uneconomical. Gov. Larry Hogan campaigned in 2014 on a pledge to block the regulation put forward by his predecessor, Martin O’Malley. Hogan promptly withdrew the rule once he took office, but he reinstated it a month later under pressure from legislators and federal regulators. He lengthened the rule’s phase-in to seven years and pledged to put it on hold if it looked like farmers would be hurt by it. Farmers finally accepted the regulation, saying they trusted Hogan to look out for them.

So far, about 65,000 acres on 350 farms statewide have been affected by the restriction, which applied first to fields with the highest phosphorus levels in their soil. By the time the phase-in is complete on Jan. 1, 2022, the rule is expected to control manure use on about 228,000 acres on more than 1,600 farms statewide.

The state has set up a manure transport program that is hauling about 250,000 tons a year to other farms — some even out of state — where it can be safely spread on fields or put to other uses. Two-thirds of that waste comes from dairy farms in central and western Maryland, while the other third has come from Shore poultry growers.

The state provides $1 million annually to subsidize the transport, with another $400,000 contributed by poultry companies responsible for most of the 300 million birds raised there every year.

Starting Jan. 1, though, another 122,000 acres — much of it on the Shore — are slated to be covered by the regulation’s next phase. Salisbury University’s Diriker told the advisory committee that the state transport program lacks funding to handle the additional manure, and there may be trouble finding enough trucks and drivers unless the state’s per-ton subsidy is increased. There’s also a shortage of short-term storage space for holding the manure until it can be hauled away, he said.

State officials have said there’s ample farm acreage elsewhere in Maryland — and even on the Upper Shore — where the excess manure could be safely applied with little risk of runoff. But Diriker cautioned that there are competing demands for that land, so less is likely to be available than previously thought. Farmers are being offered lucrative payments to spread sewage sludge, also known as biosolids, from wastewater treatment plants, and some are also leasing acreage to industrial-scale solar projects. Some farmers who use commercial fertilizer now also are reluctant to spread manure on their fields, either because it requires different equipment or because they’re wary of the regulatory scrutiny that may come with it.

Those and other factors are expected to drive up the costs of transporting the excess manure. Diriker suggested the state might need to spend about $10 million over three years to ensure there are enough trucks, enough places to store the manure and spread it safely, and maybe also provide some financial help for farmers who’d have to buy more expensive commercial fertilizer instead to get the nitrogen their crops still need.

State officials have said the best long-term solution for the excess manure generated by poultry growing operations on the Shore is to develop viable alternative uses. MDA has awarded nearly $6 million to eight projects statewide over the last five years to try technologies for converting manure into methane and potentially marketable fertilizer byproducts. The results so far have been disappointing.

Diriker said, “alternative uses are promising in the long-run, but the exact timeline is fuzzy at best.” Until those technologies prove themselves, he suggested that transport would have to serve. If the needed investments are promptly forthcoming, he said, the state might be ready to handle the next big batch of farms in a year or two.

Colby Ferguson, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, questioned the wisdom of investing heavily in transporting manure around the Bay region or even out of the watershed, given the costs and uncertainties about how much land would be available.

“To me, it makes more sense to use it where it’s generated,” he said. Forcing farmers to give up manure for chemical fertilizer will deprive soils of needed organic matter, he added.

Jeff Horstman, executive director of Shore Rivers, one of three environmental groups represented on the 21-member advisory panel, voiced his frustration with the situation. The hurdles Diriker had laid out have long been known and frequently discussed, he said, yet little has been done to get ready.

“What’s the messaging going to be if we delay this because we haven’t done what we needed to do for the last five years?” he asked.

Even before the panel had met, environmental activists were pressing the Hogan administration not to hold up the rule’s next step.

“The delay would be a serious setback in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, and we urge Gov. Hogan to reject the proposal,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “It couldn’t come at a worse time, when Maryland and all the other Bay states are behind in their pollution reduction efforts.

Hans Schmidt, assistant MDA secretary, acknowledged that the phosphorus rule is part of Maryland’s Bay cleanup plan. But a one-year delay in the rule’s phase-in means it would take full effect in 2023, he said, which is still two years ahead of the 2025 deadline for taking all steps needed to meet the nutrient reduction goals set by the Bay “pollution diet.”

Schmidt also noted that in the previous two years, the regulation took effect for those fields with the highest phosphorus levels. Those fields slated to be phased in next have lower, though still potentially problematic, levels.

Many on the advisory panel sounded sympathetic to delaying the phase-in for a year. But a motion to recommend the MDA do so failed on a tie vote. Some members said they were reluctant to back a delay until they had discussed how to deal with the impacts on farmers.

The panel instead voted to meet again on Dec. 13 and try to come up with specific recommendations for what the state would need to do now to get ready in a year, should there be a delay.

By Tim Wheeler