ANNAPOLIS – Farm groups will bus hundreds of their members to Annapolis on Wednesday and unleash them on lawmakers considering new rules to prevent another pfiesteria outbreak in the Chesapeake Bay.
“We want to fill the room, the hallway and (have) the rest of us in Lawyers Mall” in front of the State House, said John Butler, field services director for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
The bureau plans to bring at least 600 farmers from around Maryland to rally in front of the State House, meet with lawmakers and pack a legislative hearing room.
The House Environmental Matters Committee will hold the first of three days of hearings on competing pfiesteria bills Wednesday. The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee has set aside Thursday and Friday for hearings on the issue.
The bills aim to limit runoff from chicken manure that is spread on farms as fertilizer. That runoff has been linked to last summer’s outbreak of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in lower Eastern Shore waterways.
One proposal, from Gov. Parris Glendening, would threaten to fine farmers who do not carry out runoff control plans in the next four years.
Under a competing plan submitted by Del. Ronald A. Guns, D- Cecil, farmers would face no fines and would have until 2005 to control runoff on 80 percent of the state’s farmland.
Chicken farmers have said Glendening’s fines and deadlines would severely burden an industry that already operates with a small profit margin.
“We are encouraging anyone who’s concerned about the future of agriculture in Maryland to attend the rally,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
He said his group notified all 1,800 of its members and will send at least eight busloads to Annapolis — six from Salisbury and one each from Cambridge and Centreville.
Somerset County Farm Bureau President Rick Nelson said his group will send two buses of farmers, their families and others who work outside agriculture.
Eastern Shore residents “realize that their economy revolves around agriculture,” said Nelson. “Anything that would adversely affect that industry would affect their lives also.”
Environmentalists are not organizing the same onslaught as farm groups, but said they will have a small contingent there to voice support for the governor’s mandatory programs.
“We think most farmers (control runoff) voluntarily, but to be fair we need to have mandatory” programs, said Chris Bedford, chairman of the Maryland Sierra Club.
Environmental groups will also support a bill sponsored by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Montgomery, that would make big poultry companies pay more for manure disposal, he said.
The Maryland Farm Bureau will distribute buttons reading “Facts not Fear,” the theme of Wednesday’s rally and a blunt statement of many farmers’ problem with efforts to control the toxic microbe.
“There’s been a lot of conclusions jumped to,” said the farm bureau’s Butler. “We don’t know yet where all that runoff is coming from. We don’t know if agriculture is the direct link.
“We’re almost sure it’s not the total link,” he said.
Groups representing hog farmers and grain producers have also notified their members.
“All of agriculture is involved here, because (Glendening’s bill) requires every farmer in the state to have a nutrient management program,” said Maryland State Grange Master John Thompson.
And nutrient management programs will be much more effective if farmers are left alone to control runoff on their own, Butler said.
“If you make it mandatory you’ll just get what the law requires and nothing more,” he said. “We want to show the Environmental Matters Committee that there’s a great groundswell of support to stay with the voluntary program.”