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Department of Agriculture withdraws regulations after farmers protest

In a matter of hours on Monday, Eastern Shore lawmakers and farming interest groups went from outraged to satisfied with the path of proposed state regulations.

After the Maryland Department of Agriculture asked the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review to place an “emergency” stamp on a new phosphorous management tool so that it could be put into place before the fall planting season, lawmakers and advocates for dairy and poultry farmers cried foul.

Farmers said the regulations would immediately prevent them from using animal manure produced at their farms, creating myriad storage and management issues. The opposition caused Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Lower Shore, to call for a public hearing and drove Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Middle Shore, to write to Gov. Martin O’Malley to stop the regulations.

“In our discussions with them and in their discussions with the industry, there seemed to be a gentleman’s agreement that these regulations weren’t going to be adopted for a while, and that would give an opportunity for all the stakeholders to work together and find a resolution,” said Haddaway-Riccio, who is Harford County Executive David R. Craig‘s running mate in his campaign to be Maryland governor.

Haddaway-Riccio said in an interview Monday that four busloads of people were prepared to travel to Annapolis on Wednesday to testify. Less than an hour later, the Department of Agriculture withdrew the proposed regulations.

“In order to ensure farmers have time to adjust to the use of this new tool and to respond to questions regarding certain elements of the regulation raised by the environmental community, the department is withdrawing the emergency regulation,” Agriculture Secretary Earl F. “Buddy” Hance said in a statement. “The department has decided to meet with key stakeholders and will resubmit the proposal next month.”

The committee hearing was canceled shortly thereafter.

The sudden reversal came as the Maryland Farm Bureau and Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. voiced their opposition to the state’s plan to limit phosphorous pollution caused by manured applied to farm fields. Delmarva Poultry includes among its membership Perdue Farms Inc., a major chicken processing company based in Salisbury.

A Perdue spokeswoman said the company was involved through Delmarva Poultry but had not individually lobbied state officials regarding the proposed regulations.

“Perdue is participating through DPI in working on that issue,” Julie DeYoung said.

Pat Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said in a statement that “this was a wise decision by the administration.”

“This will allow MDA to work with the farm community to develop a reasonable schedule to phase-in the new phosphorus tool,” Langenfelder said.

Only environmental groups were disappointed by the Department of Agriculture’s change of course but admitted that disallowing the use of animal manure created a storage problem that farmers needed time to solve. The groups had also proposed the regulation be amended to better reduce phosphorous pollution in waterways and Chesapeake Bay.

“We are disappointed about the delay,” said Josh Tulkin, executive director for Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “But what is most important is to get this tool right.”