Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Chickens in a coop. (File)

Poultry litter bill buried by fierce opposition from farmers

Environmental advocates had some victories in the General Assembly this session, from passage of  a neonicotinoids bill that would make Maryland the first state in the country to take the pesticides off retail store shelves to approval of a more aggressive 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal for 2030. The legislature also passed a renewable energy bill to increase the state’s use of wind and solar sources by 25 percent by 2020.

But one disappointment was the Poultry Litter Management Act, a bill that would require companies to pick up excess manure and take the burden off individual farmers and taxpayers. House Bill 599 and Senate Bill 496, had committee hearings in both chambers but did not make it any further.

“It was a major piece of legislation,” said Dawn Stoltzfus, coordinator for the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, “Real significant bills take a few years to get passed.”

But if this year were any indication, the measure will need to overcome strong opposition from the state’s No. 1 farm lobbying organization, which blasted the bill.

In an opinion piece published in The Bay Net, Maryland Farm Bureau President Chuck Fry said the bill would take away farmers’ independence and undermine last year’s phosphorus management regulations.

“What was purported to be a ‘simple little bill,’ upon actual review, turns out to be a fairly comprehensive intrusion into the independence of family farm operations,” Fry wrote.

He goes on to list about a dozen provisions in the bill he finds problematic, from language that determines who owns the litter to record-keeping requirements.

“In short, the provisions in the Poultry Litter Management Act are unnecessary and are harmful to the economic balance of Maryland farm operations,” Fry concluded.

The measure also failed to enjoy much support in committee hearings. Legislators appeared uncertain how the legislation would work and peppered the measure’s advocates with questions.

Lawmakers wanted to know the economic impact of the bill, the size of the poultry industry expansion in the region, where the manure comes from, where it goes through the state-sponsored manure transport program and how much the poultry industry contributes to that program.

Even though the bill didn’t pass, advocates believe the hearings helped start a conversation about the issue and gave groups a chance to share information, such as data from the Maryland Department of Agriculture on phosphorus pollution.

“That’s some real good information that’s still being collected,” said Stoltzfus.

Environmental advocates say agriculture is the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and other local waterways.

“The Poultry Litter Management Act highlighted an unfair system that does not make the large companies that own the chickens responsible for excess manure,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Food & Water Watch and Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition said in a joint statement released on April 11.

In the statement, the groups cited data from the Department of Agriculture that said nearly 70 percent of farm fields in the three lower Eastern Shore counties have high phosphorus levels.

While it’s unknown whether the same bill will be reintroduced next year, Josh Tulkin of the Maryland Sierra Club believes the issue will return.

“It’s a complicated issue, it’s a politically challenging issue and it’s an issue we simply won’t be able to ignore,” he said.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery County, and Del. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore County and Howard County, and had 44 cosponsors including Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, the chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.