- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

ANNAPOLIS | Small Maryland farms are pleading for relief from the state’s new chicken-poop regulations, saying it’s too much of a burden for them to have to store and dispose of excess waste.

The farmers are chafing against Gov. Larry Hogan’s rules, imposed last year, to cut phosphorous runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. The manure from chicken operations is a major source of that runoff, but small contract farms say they can’t handle the burden and are asking the costs be foisted onto someone else.

Carole Morison, a chicken farmer from Pocomoke, was under contract with Perdue Farms for 23 years. During that time, all the chickens she raised on her farm came from Perdue, but the company did not pitch in to get rid excess waste.

“When the companies come and say you have to do this, there’s no choice,” Ms. Morison said. “It’s either you do it, or you don’t get any chickens, so they always hold the contract over the farmer’s head to cajole and intimidate.”

In the past, small contract farmers sold their chicken manure to other farmers or used it on their own fields. But the new regulations restricted what they were able to do with the manure, leaving them with the costly task of disposing of the waste in an environmentally friendly way.

Now the farmers want the big chicken operations they contract with to bear the burden — and they have won allies in the General Assembly.

The Poultry Litter Management Act, introduced Tuesday, would require chicken companies to pick up their contract farms’ excess manure and ensure it’s disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. The legislation would also allow contract growers, who reside largely on the state’s Eastern Shore, to keep manure necessary for crop fertilization.

Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said the effort to put the onus on Big Chicken is not the right approach.

“We believe the concept is premature,” Ms. Connelly said. “Early analysis from [the Maryland Department of Agriculture] shows fewer acres will be impacted than originally presumed. We also urge all concerned stakeholders to put time and effort into developing and supporting alternative use technology. That is what we should be spending our time on in 2016.”

Lawmakers said the health of the Chesapeake Bay depends on getting the balance between environment and small farms right.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland produces about 228,000 tons of “excess manure” that cannot be spread on farm fields a year. Excess manure means above and beyond that which can be used to fertilize fields, said Tom Zolper, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Pollution to the Chesapeake Bay has grown over the years, and 44 percent of the nitrogen and 57 percent of the phosphorus introduced to the Bay come from farms and the animal manure they use. The phosphorus spawns low-oxygen dead zones, dead fish, shell-fish harvesting restrictions and no-swim areas.

The new chicken manure legislation announced Tuesday would only apply to farms that contract all of their chickens with big operators. Independent farms that own their own chickens would still be responsible for cleanup.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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