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Farm runoff rules may get changes

February 15, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - The Maryland Department of Agriculture said the state's 1998 farm runoff law needs minor changes.

One change being considered by the Maryland General Assembly would help dairy farmers with the costs of hauling away manure. Another would remove a religious exemption intended for Mennonites.

"The bill is a good first step to say to the farming community there were changes that needed to be made," Carroll County, Md., farmer Allen Stiles testified Tuesday at a hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The controversial farm runoff law requires farmers to develop nutrient management plans, designed to minimize the amount of pollution that ends up in the ground water.

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Agriculture officials are proposing changes to the law after hearing comments from farmers across the state, said Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary of the agriculture department's Office of Resource Conservation.

The state wants to make it easier for farmers to create and implement their nutrient management plans, Powell said.

While the state already has a program to pay half of poultry farmers' waste-hauling costs, the state wants to open the program to all types of farmers.

Farmers can also be reimbursed for up to half the cost of hiring a private planner to come up with a nutrient management plan. The agriculture department is suggesting the removal of a $3-per-acre limit on the reimbursement.

The religious exemption is being removed because many farmers said it was unfair, Powell said. No one had applied for the exemption, he said.

In a related matter, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, is pushing legislation to allow Mennonites to opt out of state worker's compensation laws. A hearing on his bill set for Tuesday was canceled.

The proposed changes to the farm runoff law got widespread support from witnesses from the Maryland Farm Bureau, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Sierra Club.

The Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts proposed one additional change, which they said would encourage farmers to submit their plans before a Dec. 31, 2001 deadline.

Farmers who submit their plans early should not be subject to inspections and penalties, argued Executive Director Lynne C. Hoot.

Stiles agreed, saying farmers are not reporting their plans to agriculture officials for fear of inspections.

Meanwhile, local farmers are unsure how the law will affect their businesses. State agriculture officials just last month finished writing the regulations.

A hearing on those regulations is scheduled for 7 p.m. today in room 111 of the Classroom Building at Hagerstown Community College.

Although some lawmakers have urged the state to delay the regulations, Powell said that isn't likely to happen.

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