On Thursday, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) announced plans to shift the process of creating nutrient management plans with farmers from one mostly under the agency’s control to a system based on private companies and farm entities.
The agency said it would prefer to use cost-share funds to pay industry professionals for nutrient management plan writing services and provide educational opportunities to train farmers to write their own plans.
At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), we hope the agency will use this shift in the nutrient management process to improve environmental outcomes for local waterways, the Chesapeake Bay, and Maryland communities.
Nutrient management plans are intended to help farmers understand how much fertilizer they need to apply to meet crop-yield goals. The plans are designed to prevent fertilizer overapplication, which harms waterways when chemical fertilizers and animal manure containing nitrogen and phosphorus are washed into streams and rivers due to rainfall. Runoff from agricultural fields and urban areas is the primary obstacle to achieving Maryland’s Bay clean-up goals.
Maryland law requires farmers to adhere to the application limits prescribed by nutrient management plans, however there are few penalties for failing to do so and punitive penalties such as fines or judicial actions by regulatory agencies are rare. Due to privacy requirements, it’s very difficult for organizations outside state government to review nutrient management plans or their implementation.
In waterways, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution fuels algal blooms that reduce water clarity and remove dissolved oxygen, making waterways inhospitable to marine life. Algal blooms also limit residents’ ability to safely fish and swim in streams, rivers, and the Bay.
Agricultural activities in Maryland contributed an estimated 22.2 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay, about 44 percent of the total amount of nitrogen that reached the Bay in the state. That amount was more than double any other nitrogen source, such as wastewater or runoff from urban and suburban development.
Agriculture has also been among the most difficult sources of pollution for governments and farmers to reduce. Since 2010, Maryland has reduced nitrogen pollution from agriculture by just 1.6 million pounds. Meanwhile, nitrogen pollution loads from wastewater treatment plants have nearly been halved, from 14 million pounds in 2010 to 8 million pounds in 2021, according to Maryland’s 2021 Chesapeake Bay Annual Progress report.
The ongoing struggles to reduce polluted runoff from farm fields illustrate potential problems with nutrient management plans that CBF believes MDA should address. The resulting effort from MDA, if done correctly, could be used elsewhere in other watershed states where agricultural pollution issues are even more intractable and have threatened the overall success of the Bay cleanup.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland Senior Scientist Doug Myers issued the following statement:
“We hope by shifting the creation of nutrient management plans to a more privatized system that MDA can focus on ensuring farmers are complying with the plans and connecting fertilizer use to water quality improvement goals for communities. The agency should use its authority under state law to enforce nutrient management plan violations to ensure compliance.”
“CBF also encourages MDA to examine loopholes that enable farms to apply polluting substances removed from permitted waste treatment facilities. These include solids removed from municipal wastewater plants and poultry processing facilities. MDA provides little transparency about what’s in these biosolids, which are classified as ‘soil amendments’. They are stored and applied to farm fields with no accountability.
“To remove potential conflicts from the process, CBF urges MDA to ensure that private operators creating nutrient management plans for farmers have no financial connection or affiliations with fertilizer companies or their subsidiaries. MDA’s continued oversight and expertise will be key to successful implementation of this new approach.”
“Ideally, nutrient management plans should assist farmers with reducing fertilizer use, which would benefit water quality and help farmers save money. However, water quality monitoring in areas dominated by agricultural use in Maryland has shown an increase in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Bay. Throughout Maryland and the rest of the Bay watershed, the many policies aimed at reducing fertilizer use and preventing polluted farm runoff either aren’t being fully implemented or aren’t effective enough to improve water quality in nearby streams or rivers. It's a major reason state and federal officials no longer believe Bay pollution-reduction goals can be met by 2025.
“This shift by MDA presents an opportunity to improve farm fertilizer management and develop a new model to address the intractable agricultural pollution problems harming Chesapeake Bay water quality.”