Industry reps discuss Md’s ‘state of ag’ in briefing

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Feb. 10, 2015) — Farming officials from across Maryland painted a healthy portrait of the state’s agricultural industry last Thursday, but reiterated heavy concern over the impact of proposed nutrient regulations that critics say could make the industry less profitable and viable.
Representatives from the Maryland Farm Bureau and other state farming organizations gave a “State of Agriculture” briefing to members of the House Environment & Transportation Committee.
They spoke about the agriculture industry’s intertwined relationship with Eastern Shore poultry production, which creates the manure many Shore farmers use to fertilize their fields. Those grain farmers also benefit from their proximity to the poultry industry, the state’s largest and most profitable agricultural sector.
“They are our No. 1 customer and the No. 1 industry in the state,” said Kevin Anderson, a grain farmer and past president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association. “Other areas of the country don’t have that luxury and receive lower grain prices. Without the poultry industry it would not be economically viable to grow grain on Maryland’s Eastern Shore due to transportation costs.”
Excess nutrient runoff, including phosphorous from poultry manure, has contributed significantly to the Chesapeake Bay’s declining health.
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley proposed a new regulation, the Phosphorous Management Tool (known as the PMT), which would limit how much manure could be applied to Eastern Shore fields.
Farmers have so far escaped the law, however, after Gov. Larry Hogan, elected in November, killed it as one of his first acts in office last month.
That subject was on Farm Bureau President Chuck Fry’s mind as he laid out his organization’s three priorities: Maintaining funding for cover crops and agricultural land preservation and removing or reducing environmental regulations — such as the PMT — that he said threaten the viability of Maryland’s family farms.
The farmers also said they’re committed to the discovery of new technologies and best practices that will improve issues such as manure application and runoff by making them more precise and effective.
The Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., for instance, has researched machines that could effectively convert poultry litter to energy, said Kurt Fuchs, president of the organization.
“We’ve investigated more than 60 systems to do just that, but unfortunately, to date, none of them have been commercially viable,” he said. “We take it very seriously.”
At the same time, he said, lower feed costs have led to a rise in poultry house construction, which has helped to bring younger farmers into poultry production.
“Because of the contract system, it provides a surety of income,” Fuchs said. “It’s less risk.”
Grain producers have also worked to better understand their impact on the Bay’s health, Anderson said, including hosting seminars on the effects of high phosphorus levels in the Bay and other bodies of water.
“Maryland grain producers are very committed to the science of nutrient management,” he said. “We learned that there is no silver bullet for solving the global phosphorus issue. … We also learned the Bay is resilient.”
If the PMT is eventually enacted, Anderson said he hopes it would be done so through the regulatory side of the state rather than the legislative.
The science behind the PMT is still being studied, he said, and if there are updates that ease the burden on farmers, it would be preferable not to have to wait for the legislature to update the law.
The state also needs to reconsider how it designs regulations, including the assumptions beneath them, Fry said.
“One of the highest phosphorus-level rivers is the Anacostia, and there’s no farms along the Anacostia,” he said.
Much of the phosphorus leeching into the river likely comes from wild animals in parks and residents’ pets, Fry said.
The dairy industry isn’t looking forwarded to increased forecasted price volatility, said Alan Stiles, president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association.
He said his sector is also committed to best practices but added that one issue that comes up often is the treatment of animals.
“It’s the right thing to do to treat our animals right, and it’s also more cost-effective also,” he said. “A healthy animal is going to be a more productive animal.”