SPRINGFIELD — Dairy farms and other agricultural operations across the state warned Friday they could be put out of business by proposed regulations governing how they apply manure to their lands.
“If you impose these regulations, there will be no dairy farms left in the state of Massachusetts,” Tedd White, a West Hawley dairy farmer with 114 Holsteins, told officials at the third and final Department of Agricultural Resources hearing on proposed “plant nutrient application regulations” for manure, fertilizer, compost and other materials on 10 acres or more of agricultural and non-agricultural land.
“We keep our farms going because it’s in our blood, it’s our heritage. We’re trying to hang on. Dairy farmers aren’t billion-dollar corporations. They can’t afford secretaries to handle paperwork.”
That paperwork, White and other farmers said, includes detailed records of tests of soil and manure as well as a “nutrient management plan” to be developed and updated every three years in accordance with “best practices” developed by the University of Massachusetts Extension Service.
White, who said he was “flabbergasted” by the proposal, said he already has a management plan and the regulations would be “extremely onerous.” He said that narrowly restricting manure-spreading on his seven-plus generation farm to meet guidelines set by people in Boston who have never farmed “will run us out of business,” along with the state’s 149 other dairy farms.
Expressing “anger, sadness and disgust,” Gary Gemme, of Harvest Farm in Whately, said, “I can’t believe that my state would throw its farmers under the bus for some leniency from the EPA when those farmers are as tuned to pollution issues as any in the country.”
Gemme said that farmers understand how manure and other soil nutrients have to be applied to react with flexibility in changing weather conditions, specific varieties of vegetables and fields that are “swapped” from one crop to another or even between different farmers, “responding quickly and wisely to opportunities that do pop up.”
He added, “This whole process seems like an absurd joke to me,” especially in a state that uses what he calculated as 180 times more salt on its “acres” of roads than the farmers apply in nutrients.
Deerfield dairy farmer Peter Melnik criticized the ambiguity and impracticality of the proposal, especially since it ignores the kinds of decisions farmers routinely have to make when faced with conditions such as this past winter’s ice and cold temperatures.
“I won’t know until a week or so whether that (180 acres of) alfalfa made it through the winter,” he said. “If that alfalfa died, I may have to take that land and put that into a crop that requires manure. Am I going to have to defend myself when a neighbor says, ‘Why are you spreading on this field’ or someone looks at my manure management plan that says I shouldn’t be spreading there this year? … Making those quick decisions sometimes has to happen within weeks.”
The agriculture department — which developed the regulations in accordance with 2012 state legislation so that communities can cut nitrogen and phosphorous pollution to waterways to maximize federal Environmental Protection Agency credits — was supposed to have a comment period that ended Friday. But hearing officer Lee Corte-Real announced that the comment deadline has been extended for 60 days, following hearings already held in Boston and Lakeville.
While some called for that period to be extended to 90 days to allow time for the department to consult with UMass Extension, the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service and especially farmers themselves, Ashfield crop adviser Tom Carter told the hearing that 90 days is not long enough. He pointed out that the comment period coincides with farmers’ busy growing season. He urged that discussions on the details of the regulations should not even begin until Oct. 1.
“Fertilizer recommendations without yield goals are worthless,” said Carter, who also questioned how UMass Extension or the UMass soil test lab, already hard-pressed financially, would be able to keep up with the increased burden on farmers that these regulations would impose.
Carter called the proposal “totally unrealistic and a tremendous burden … on small and large growers alike. It will make well-meaning businesspeople into criminals.”
Katie Campbell-Nelson, a UMass Extension agent from Greenfield, described how her own research showed that manure management under the proposed regulations would result in more pollutants to water sources, not less.
She said soil sampling methods differ from crop to crop and with other factors, and described how the proposed regulations differ from UMass educational materials. There are also discrepancies with UMass Extension’s recommendations for late-season manure application, she added.
Campbell-Nelson called for the regulations to allow more flexibility in scientific advances, differences in nutrient sources, weather, crop type and other variants.
“Many variables impact nutrient management decisions, and they need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” said Campbell-Nelson.
Rather than increased regulations with stiff penalties, farmers and others urged the department to work on an education plan using the recommendations of UMass Extension.
In its testimony to the state, the 6,000-member Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation criticized the lack of coordination with UMass Extension on developing regulations, as the 2012 legislation prescribed.
“Certainly these regulations are not consistent with UMass published information, educational materials and outreach programs.
The requirements of this draft go well beyond UMass information and in some instances outright conflict with UMass guidelines,” the federation’s written testimony states. “The failure of the Department to work with UMass and ensure consistency with established efforts is the major, and root flaw of these regulations.”