When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) hits his last few days in office next month, he plans to enact dramatic new regulations for farmers who use chicken droppings to fertilize their fields.
The move could further bolster O’Malley’s environmental résumé ahead of a possible run for president, demonstrating to Democratic activists that he is not afraid to take on the state’s powerful poultry industry in a quest to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
But it is also likely to collide with the incoming governor, Republican Larry Hogan, who has promised to fight what he described as “politically motivated, midnight-hour” regulations.
And it is not a slam-dunk in other ways for O’Malley, whose White House bid is seen widely as a long shot, and who has suffered rapidly declining popularity in Maryland, where residents have grown frustrated with the feeling that he has overtaxed and overregulated them.
“There shouldn’t be these regulations just thrown out as a last-minute fulfillment of a political promise to a special interest group,” Hogan told a cheering audience at a Maryland Farm Bureau convention in Ocean City last Monday.
When news of the impending regulations hit in late November, one Eastern Shore farmer tweeted at agriculture groups in Iowa — where O’Malley has spent significant time and money over the past year — with such warnings as: “Hope #Iowafarmers are paying attention to what MD governor Martin OMalley is doing to #marylandfarmers” and “He is not Agriculture’s friend.”
The new regulations focus on phosphorus, a nutrient found in the tons of chicken litter produced by the Eastern Shore’s poultry industry, which is anchored by the processing giant Perdue Farms. Although phosphorus is necessary for plant development, if it is not absorbed by crops or retained in the soil, it can seep into the local waterways and travel to the bay. Over time, many Maryland fields have become heavily saturated with phosphorus.
Phosphorus, along with another manure ingredient, nitrogen, have been blamed for seriously polluting the bay and contributing to the formation of oxygen-deprived “dead zones.” Environmentalists warn that major action is needed now and cannot be delayed.
“We’ve done the low-hanging fruit. We’ve done all of the first steps. We’ve done all of the easy things,” said Alison Prost, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland office. “If we want it to be clean — not just status quo, but clean — we need to do the hard things.”
Maryland has for years required farmers to create nutrient-management plans to try to control the amount of manure spread on fields. At first, only nitrogen was of concern, but in recent years, phosphorus was added to the list.
Despite efforts to reduce phosphorus levels in the bay by cleaning wastewater and filtering urban rainwater, the health of the bay remains largely the same. And given that animal waste is considered the leading source of this pollution, O’Malley firmly believes that stricter regulation is needed.
“We’re focused on results and doing what works,” said Ron Boehmer, a spokesman for the governor, in a statement. “So we’re moving forward with tools — endorsed by scientists and experts across the state — that will play a key role in restoring the health of the bay.”
Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project, puts it more bluntly: “Farmers will give you a list of all the things they say they’re doing — it’s not enough.”
The new regulations, which have been in the works for three years, will require farmers to weigh more factors in determining the ease by which phosphorus could leave their land and how much chicken litter can be safely applied. Those factors include the distance to water, whether a field is on a slope and the density of the soil. The new standards will be phased in over six years, with the first round of action required during the 2017 growing season.
Environmentalists note that this fine-tuning could allow some farmers to continue using the same amount of litter, possibly even more, although the overall aim is to reduce the amount of manure used. Many farmers are convinced they will have to collectively spend millions more on commercial fertilizer and then ship tons of chicken droppings to states with fewer restrictions.
“Are we going to haul tons and tons of manure across the Bay Bridge? Are we going to be holding it in cavernous storage bins?” said outgoing Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dorchester).
There’s also the worry that Perdue Farms will move elsewhere. (A spokeswoman for the company said Thursday that they do not have a position on the new phosphorus regulations.)
“I worry with every regulation. Every regulation is another nail in the coffin,” said Lee Richardson, a 44-year-old farmer in Wicomico County who raises chickens for Perdue and likes tweeting anti-O’Malley sentiments to his counterparts in Iowa. “At what point does [Perdue Farms Chairman] Jim Perdue go: ‘Oh, to hell with it.’ ”
Five times a year, Perdue drops off thousands of chicks for Richardson to raise over seven weeks. Perdue also provides food and detailed care instructions. Richardson is left with the manure, which he stockpiles and then every few years spreads on the 1,000-acres where he grows corn. Switching out the manure with commercial fertilizer would cost at least $115 per acre more, he said.
He’s unsure what the new regulations will mean. Although there will likely be new expenses, he is confident it will not kill his farm. Farmers are willing to compromise on the regulations — they want a clean bay, too — but they’ve grown tired of dealing with the O’Malley administration, he said.
“When you start shoving it down farmers’ throats, that’s when you get resistance,” Richardson said. “Since O’Malley has been in, it’s been one thing after another. If you compromise now, what’s tomorrow? So we dug our heels in.”
One of the reasons Hogan won in a state with twice as many Democrats as Republicans is that he tapped into discontented communities — including farmers and small-business owners who feel overregulated as well as blue-collar Democrats who have not seen their salaries keep up with the cost of living.
Although the governor-elect talks endlessly of his dedication to bipartisanship, his attack on these new regulations sets up a potentially partisan fight.
The regulations are working their way through a 45-day public comment process that ends on Jan. 15, at which point the Department of Agriculture is expected to adopt them. A legislative committee that weighs in on new regulations could hold a hearing, but the chairman said Friday there are no plans to do that.
When Hogan takes office on Jan. 21, he could begin the process of issuing new regulations. Meanwhile, the General Assembly could pass legislation that would supersede any regulations. But Hogan also has veto power.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the regulations committee and the Senate’s environment subcommittee, said he is optimistic that Hogan will work collaboratively to reach a compromise without setting off a nasty legislative fight.
“I would hope that he looks at the science and doesn’t jump to conclusions just because the farm community is loud,” said Pinsky, a supporter of the regulations who wanted them implemented a year ago.
Hogan has yet to detail what he will do, saying he will not talk about policy until he is governor, and he has appeared annoyed when reporters ask for specifics.
“We’re not going to talk about that today,” Hogan told reporters in Easton last week , soon after he visited Perdue’s headquarters in Salisbury for a private meeting.
But Hogan is not afraid to talk politics before becoming governor, saying at the Farm Bureau convention: “There’s been out-right assault on our farmers and a war on rural Maryland and, let me make it clear, on day one in my administration, that war on rural Maryland will be over.”
Before Hogan spoke, Maryland Farm Bureau President Chuck Fry placed a small chicken on the podium “to remind him of who he is speaking to.” As Hogan prepared to leave, Fry told the governor-elect that the organization wants to buy him a gold-plated pitchfork to keep in his office, although he might get a spray-painted one instead.
Hogan turned to the crowd of laughing farmers and shouted: “We’re going to need it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Wicomico County chicken farmer Lee Richardson.