WASHINGTON – Spring. Gentle breezes rustle budding tree branches, carry the chirps of baby birds and waft over the countryside spreading the scent of manure.
The smells, along with the noise, of farming can come as a surprise to city dwellers when they move to rural areas.
“It’s a standing joke,” said Queen Anne’s County farmer Wick Dudley. “People come over here and all of a sudden, there are some odors.”
The friction between newcomers and old-timers has led Washington County officials to set up a board to handle complaints, as other counties where suburbia has encroached on farmland have done.
In Caroline County, real estate agents are supposed to have homebuyers sign a form at settlement that explains they should expect noise, smells, and farmers working at night, said extension agent Jim Lewis.
But still people complain.
Lewis said people have called about roosters crowing at dawn or the smell of rotting plants. Some have accused farmers of killing seagulls: When farmers spray their fields, they mark the edges of the sprayed area with foam, and some people have thought that the clumps of foam were dead seagulls, he said.
“Most of the people don’t understand agriculture,” Lewis said.
During last year’s drought, for example, some residents blamed nearby farms when their wells went dry. But Lewis said the problem was improperly drilled wells.
“A 100-acre farm doesn’t use more water than 100 acres of houses,” he said.
Even when wells are not dry, some people worry about how nearby farms might affect their water supply. Don Schwartz, Washington County extension agent, said people who have moved next to an orchard or a dairy farm sometimes call and ask about getting their well water tested.
He said that after a bit of education, people come to understand that “farmers don’t really spend a lot of money just so they can pollute.”
By far the most common complaint about farms is the smell, officials said.
Hagerstown resident Rebecca Jones said that the odor from a nearby chicken farm is so bad she can hardly breathe in her own house. When the farmer spreads manure once or twice a year, Jones said she cannot open her windows.
She grew up on a farm in Western Maryland, so when she returned to that area, most things came as no surprise. But, she said, “I wasn’t expecting the chicken-farm smell.”
Jones has not reported the smell to county officials, but other residents have.
Laurie Bucher, director of environmental health for Washington County, said her department gets around 10 calls each spring from people complaining about manure smells.
April and May are the big months for calls. One person had called by mid- March this year, she said.
The department responds to complaints by making sure farmers are being reasonably careful, Bucher said.
“If there’s not a lot of spillage on the road or they’re not getting it on their neighbor’s property,” the department does not ask the farmers to change what they are doing, she said.
Washington County has not quite finished setting up a board to handle complaints about farms, because the budget is a higher priority.
The Agriculture Reconciliation Committee will have seven members representing farmers, residents, and real estate agents. It is designed to provide an alternative to an expensive lawsuit, said Eric Seifarth of the county planning department.
The state has some protection for farmers from nuisance lawsuits already, but the planned committee “takes it to the next level,” Seifarth said.
The committee is designed to give farmers the upper hand in facing complaints about such things as noise, dust and odors arising from normal operations.
“There are times in an agricultural area, when a farmer should be allowed to harvest grain at midnight if there’s a rain the next day,” Seifarth said.
But if the farmer is not behaving in a responsible manner, the board will not help him.
“If someone’s acting maliciously he would not be protected,” Seifarth said.
The culture clash has not caused great rifts in communities. Most people who move to the country realize they will experience some noise, dust and smells, Schwartz said.
“As long as they’re shown some respect from the farmer and the farmer is shown respect from his neighbors,” no major conflicts occur, he said.