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Farmers seen as scapegoats for Pfiesteria

November 10, 1997

Farmers seen as scapegoats for Pfiesteria

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

A Maryland commission addressing the state's highly publicized Pfiesteria problem is raising concern among some farmers and lawmakers who feel agricultural runoff is being hastily targeted as the culprit in the outbreaks that killed thousands of fish and left dozens of people ill over the summer.

"I hope we're not going off half-cocked," said Gerald Ditto, a Clear Spring hog farmer and president of the Washington County Farm Bureau.

State Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington, said she is worried the commission's report recommending tighter controls on the use of manure for fertilizer could worsen the already-difficult financial conditions for many farmers.

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"Farmers are operating on such a margin now that anything that is going to mandate (regulations) is going to kill them," said Stup, a member of the House of Delegates' Environmental Matters Committee, which is expected to review proposed Pfiesteria legislation during the upcoming General Assembly session.

The 38-page report includes several recommendations, including a call for farmers to enroll by the year 2000 in a state-approved nutrient management plan that addresses both nitrogen and phosphorus.

Ditto said farmers already have nutrient management plans for nitrogen, and said placing controls on phosphorus would be cause for concern.

"What we're going to have if we start balancing (nutrient management) on phosphorus is...a lot of manure that we can't apply to land that we could have applied to land in the past," Ditto said.

That poses two potential problems for farmers, he said. First, they would have to pay to have a portion of their manure hauled from their farms if the soil has too much phosphorus. Second, they would have to purchase commercial fertilizer to replace the manure being hauled away.

Williamsport dairy farmer Charles Wiles said he is hoping new guidelines would have little impact on the county because there are few, if any, large "super herds" of cows bunched onto small farms.

He estimated that county farms have about one cow for every acre of land, a comfortable ratio that shouldn't alarm regulators concerned with farm runoff.

He said some farmers could run into higher costs if new regulations require them to spread manure over wider sections of their land.

Some farmers and their supporters are irritated by what they perceive as a quick verdict against the agriculture industry in the Pfiesteria debate.

"I do call it Pfiesteria hysteria, because some people are just rushing to judgment," Stup said.

She and others point to evidence that shows various factors other than runoff - such as fish population and water conditions - could contribute to Pfiesteria. While the report said phosphorus can fuel the growth of Pfiesteria, it also said there have been toxic outbreaks in waters not enriched with nutrients.

"The point is, maybe we don't know all there is to know about this estuary. Maybe Pfiesteria is Mother Nature's way of population control for fish," Ditto said.

The commission's report has been given to Gov. Parris Glendening, who may use the document to shape proposed legislation. Glendening will take several weeks to review the report, said spokesman Ray Feldmann.

Whatever the governor decides, the issue could be one of the hottest topics facing the General Assembly - pitting environmentalists against farmers - when it begins its annual legislative session in January, Stup said.

"Basically, I'm looking for a real battle royal this year," she said.

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