ANNAPOLIS – Paul Miller Jr. had never been to Annapolis, which is almost 200 miles from his Garrett County dairy farm. But on Wednesday, a microbe called pfiesteria reached out and brought him to the General Assembly’s doorstep.
“It’s a good ways, but we have to do something,” he said of the three-hour trip to the state capital. A Glendening administration plan to limit farm runoff “is really going to hurt agriculture,” he said.
Miller and hundreds of other farmers descended on Annapolis Wednesday, pouring out of buses, filling the mall in front of the State House and packing the entrance to a building where lawmakers opened hearings on plans to limit the use of chicken manure as fertilizer.
Scientists believe runoff from the nutrient-rich manure made pfiesteria turn toxic last summer, killing fish and sickening people near lower Eastern Shore waterways.
Gov. Parris Glendening has proposed limiting nutrient runoff, but the fines and mandatory timetables in his bill gave many farmers all the reason they needed to show up.
“The thing that bothers me is I feel like I’m going to be in a police state,” said cattle farmer Jim Welling. Under Glendening’s bill, he would have to write a plan for fertilizer use on his Sykesville farm.
“When am I going to get the time to document all this?” he asked. “The joy of farming is gone because of regulations.”
Environmentalists, mingling with the throng, said runoff restrictions are needed but farmers should not bear all the costs of taking manure off the land.
“Just as we believe farmers need to do (manure) management programs for their land, we believe the chicken industry should be doing management plans for their manure,” said Daniel Pontious, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
Pontious and other environmentalists were promoting a bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Montgomery, that would force big poultry companies to dispose of excess manure.
“Excess chicken manure on the Eastern Shore (is) the largest single source of nutrient pollution,” Pontious said.
But some farmers liked Van Hollen’s plan no more than Glendening’s.
Poultry companies would just “pass their costs down to the farmer so they can keep their bottom line where it is,” said Travis Hutchison, a Cordova hog farmer who sells grain to Shore poultry companies.
“If they move out of the area there goes our grain market,” he said.
Bill Hammond, a grain buyer for Perdue Farms Inc. in Salisbury, shared Hutchison’s concern. “If the company doesn’t make money I don’t have a job,” he said.
Queen Anne’s County poultry farmer Dan Shortall spoke out for a competing bill, sponsored by Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, that gives farmers more time to limit runoff and frees them from fines.
“The farming industry cannot live with mandatory nutrient regulations. We have to keep it voluntary,” he told the cheering crowd at Wednesday’s rally.
The Maryland Farm Bureau passed out “Facts not Fear” buttons Wednesday, reflecting many farmers’ belief that the link between chicken manure and pfiesteria is still to poorly understood to give farmers mandates.
“What’s the scoop on the poop?” read a sign that Woodbine agronomist Lambert Cissel wore on his back.
The House Environmental Matters Committee held Wednesday’s pfiesteria hearings.
“We have a lot of friends in the House,” said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. He said “the real battle” will be in the Senate, and urged farmers to stay in town for hearings Thursday and Friday before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Welling said the rally in Annapolis cost him time away from his Sykesville cattle farmer, but it was something he had to do.
“I’ve got work to get done at home and none of it is getting done today, but if we don’t stand up for ourselves we’ll be in trouble,” he said.