PMT comment period yields minimal responses

Staff Writer

SALISBURY, Md. (May 19, 2015) — At one point over the last several years — as state officials and lawmakers considered how best to craft a controversial phosphorus management tool for farmers — vitriol over one of the proposals was so high a public comment period yielded 702 comments, almost all of them negative.
How many comments did the state get for its recent and final version of the regulation, which limits how much phosphorus can be applied to farmland statewide?
Just eight, said Roydon Powell, the Maryland agriculture department’s assistant secretary for resource conservation, before a group of farmers and public officials during a May 8 information session about the new regulation.
“We’ve been through a process,” he said inside a suite at the Tri-County Multi-Purpose Center. “I think the consensus that was achieved in that process was important.”
Powell was in Salisbury to give answers to farmers and public officials from Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties who have questions about the PMT, which is likely to deeply impact farmers in those Lower Shore counties, where the chicken farming industry is heaviest.
Using soil tests, farmers would need to be fully compliant with the new regulation by 2024, a deadline that includes a two-year delay important to many farmers.
The tool assigns a farm a fertility index value — or FIV — based on a number of factors. If the farm scores less than 150, the farmer can apply phosphorus to the land in accordance with a nutrient management plan.
If it scores more than that, the farmer will have to calculate how much phosphorous he can apply to the soil, if any. The regulation goes into effect next month.
Farmers with the highest levels of phosphorus saturation would then have to stop applying manure immediately.
Others will be able to wait up to two years.
The tool is designed to limit the amount of phosphorous leaking through the soil into the Chesapeake Bay.
Too much phosphorous in the Bay can lead to over-enriched dead zones inhospitable to aquatic life.
“It’s about water quality,” Powell said. “It’s not about agronomy.”
Experts still know little about phosphorous and its relationship to the Bay, he said, making it important the tool was passed as a regulation and not a law that would need to go through the legislature if new science reveals something that might require quick changes. Changes that might benefit farmers, he said.
Some farmers and officials at the meeting expressed concern over what happens if the tool doesn’t help the Bay’s water quality.
Powell acknowledged some scientists have said it could take up to a century to see changes.
“That’s one of my biggest challenges,” he said.
Other farmers said they disagreed with the regulation and believed manure can be applied so that phosphorus levels in the soil don’t increase.
Another asked Powell what to do if different companies perform soil tests that yield different results.
Powell said the farmer could choose between them as long as both companies were state-accredited.
Powell closed the meeting by assuring attendees that regardless of what happens, Hogan is supportive of the farming community.
“He has no interest in harming farmers,” he said. “He’s willing to work with you.”