With the next legislative session in Annapolis drawing near, farmers are already hearing the chords of a familiar song: "It's All Your Fault." A recent op-ed from Kathy Phillips of Assateague Coastal Trust - who's sued chicken farmers over perceived environments violations before only to lose on the merits, and who was chided in a judge's ruling for taking an "'ends justifies the means' approach" - sings the same dirge, accusing agriculture of "turning its back" on the environment.
A broader, more representative group of agricultural and environmental leaders, though, is singing a sweeter tune - and in concert, by coming together. That's the real story as 2021 approaches.
Start with a well-established record of farmers in and around Maryland working diligently to reduce nutrient pollution. Over the past 30 years, farmers' commitments to sustainable practices have reduced agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus loads to the Bay by 25 percent. Maryland shines especially brightly here. Since 1985, Maryland's agriculture sector has reduced the nitrogen entering the Bay from farmland by 35 percent. Inaccurate estimates and efforts to paint farmers as villains in the Bay narrative don't leave room to note this progress.
As farmers have reduced their nitrogen runoff, nitrogen sent to the Chesapeake Bay in the stormwater systems of urban and suburban areas increased - yes, increased - from 34 million pounds a year in the 1980s to 41 million pounds in 2017. Farmers are moving the needle in the right direction; developed areas, despite many of their residents' sincere hopes of improving water quality, are not. Sticking to the same old 'blame farmers' script doesn't prepare any of us for the challenges ahead if these trends continue.
This year, a pioneering collaboration between Maryland environmental regulators, the Campbell Foundation, and Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. gave the state new tools for ambient air monitoring of ammonia - the byproduct of chickens' digestive systems that makes chicken houses smell like chicken houses. The Maryland Department of the Environment operates the air monitoring stations and publishes the resulting data. They show ammonia levels in Maryland's chicken-producing regions are far below the 350-parts-per-billion (ppb) MDE safety threshold. In September, for instance, the average hourly ammonia value in downtown Baltimore was 7.7 ppb, or in other words, 342.3 ppb below the threshold. And at the Pocomoke City-area monitoring station, near a concentration of chicken farms, the average hourly ammonia value was 8.5 ppb - which is 341.5 ppb below the threshold. Farmers, chicken companies and environmental advocates working together, not against each other, are delivering this real data to Marylanders - not overinflated, exaggerated estimates masked as comprehensive reports.
Another opportunity for compromise came about when the chicken community declined to seek postponement of benchmarks farmers need to meet in the Phosphorus Management Tool, or PMT. As members of the PMT Advisory Committee, DPI, Maryland Grain Producers and Maryland Farm Bureau recommended not to delay implementation of the PMT, which ensures chicken litter-as-fertilizer is not placed on soils already saturated with phosphorus - a regulatory safeguard Phillips wrongly claims Maryland lacks. And working with partners through the Delmarva Land and Litter Collaborative, the chicken community is doing more to help by developing a smartphone app that will connect growers who have this valuable, locally sourced, organic fertilizer with those who need it.
Phillips's op-ed tries to conflate Maryland chicken exports with U.S. totals to imply that chicken companies are "no longer serving the communities they inhabit." But the facts are these: Of the $890 million in chicken produced in Maryland last year, less than 5 percent was exported to other countries, according to U.S. Census Bureau trade data. Much of those exports are products American tastes don't favor, like chicken feet. Knowing the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates hunger in our neighborhoods, the chicken industry is working harder than ever to put food on the table, on shelves, and in food pantries. Record-setting donations by Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Mountaire Farms, and discounted bulk sales throughout the region by all the chicken companies have helped provide more than 9.4 million meals.
Farmers have risen to the challenge we put before them, managing to feed more people while shrinking their environmental footprint. Partnering with farmers, as Maryland and its wiser environmental advocates have done, empowers them to achieve even better results for the Bay. Demonizing them, the only tactic Assateague Coastal Trust thinks to try, sticks to a comfortable script but makes no progress.
Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. is the Delmarva chicken industry's voice as the premier membership association focusing on advocacy, education and member relations. For more information, visit dpichicken.org; like DPI on Facebook; and follow us on Twitter and YouTube.