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Maryland's Proposed Farm Regulations...And an Alternative Viewpoint

Will Morrow in front of chicken houseMaryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration is proposing regulations that would require farmers to reduce the runoff of manure and fertilizer that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.  Many farmers are strongly opposed to government regulations -- but others, including Will Morrow (above), argue that the rules not only protect public health, but also help level the economic playing field between farms that invest to be environmentally responsible, and those that do not.

“We are a society of rules, whether you are talking about the speed limits on the road, or whether you are talking about the medical industry," Morrow said during a recent tour of his Whitmore Farm in Frederick County (which is described in more detail below).  "Every industry has rules, and farmers should not be treated any differently.”

Whitmore Farm 2Among other things, the proposed Maryland regulations would prohibit the spreading of manure on farm fields in the winter.  This rule would force about 200 dairy farms to spend as much as $300,000 each installing manure storage pits, so they won’t have to dump manure on frozen fields as a waste disposal method. The state, however, has pledged to help farmers with these pollution control projets by paying 87.5 percent of the cost, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

“Clearly we recognize that there are going to be additional costs, and we are willing to make additional investments to offset those costs,” said Royden N. Powell III, Assistant Secretary for Resource Conservation at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “We have rather ambitious goals to meet for EPA’s pollution (limits) for the Bay.”

Goats and sheepMany clean water advocates argue the regulations are a step forward for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, because a third to a half of all of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the estuary comes from farm manure and farm fertilizer, according to the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Maryland Farm Bureau, however, strongly opposes the proposed rules because of the cost to farmers. The organization argues that the number of small dairy farms in the state has already fallen dramatically. Many dairy farmers are struggling financially and are worried about gaps in state reimbursements for the pollution control projects.

 “We keep losing more and more dairy farms, and we keep harping, ‘How can we get more local food to our customers?’  This is not helping local food,” said Chuck Fry, First Vice President of the Maryland Farm Bureau and a fourth generation dairy farmer in Frederick County, said during a public hearing on the regulations this summer.

For decades, the farm lobby for decades has been aggressive in opposing government regulations. But there is an alternative viewpoint within the farming community.

Will Morrow in front of barn with solar panelsThis alternative viewpoint is expressed by Morrow, a hog farmer who is Vice President of a progressive farming group called Future Harvest, Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA).

In some ways, Morrow’s Whitmore Farm looks old fashioned. It has a red wooden barn with white Victorian trim.  But at the peak of his barn, above the date 1896, is a glittering expanse of solar panels on the roof. Smaller solar panels sprout like mushrooms in his fields, powering his electric fences.

His hogs, sheep, goats and chickens roam in pastures, and are not confined in metal buildings, as is common on many modern livestock operations.  The chickens live in six small wooden houses on wheels (shown at top), which Morrow moves from pasture to pasture. 

“Happy pigs,” Morrow quips, as he rubs the back of a large hog lounging in a yard near the barn.

HogsMorrow doesn’t raise a generic, modern breed of hogs.

“We raise a breed called Gloucestershire Old Spot.  It’s different from the industrial hog breeds in a number of ways,” Morrow explained.  “The hog industry has bred for very very lean pork.  Basically, they call it the other white meat because they are trying to make pork like chicken breasts…. The Gloucestershire Old Spot is a fattier pig; it’s got more marbling in the pork chops. So it’s a much more flavorful meat.”

Morrow says he is in favor Maryland’s proposed farm regulations -– and smart, science based rules for farms, in general. He noted that the state taxpayers help pay for many of the runoff control projects on farms, including the construction of manure storage pits, sheds, and alternative watering devices for cattle that keep the animals away from streams.

Whitmore Farm“Farmers are really lucky, because we are the only industry I know of where taxpayer money is used to subsidize our waste management,” Morrow said.

He pointed to fences he spent thousands of dollars building, to keep his animals out of a nearby stream, so the animals will not contaminate the stream with fecal bacteria.

“There is no doubt that what I do results in more expensive meat and eggs,” Morrow said.  “But what we’ve found is that customers value that, and are willing to pay more for products that are raised in a way that doesn’t harm the environment and is good for the animal.”

Will Morrow with pigsMorrow is something of a heretic to the farm lobby. But he also may be on to something.  Cheap food can carry a high price downstream for public health.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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