AUGUSTA — What began in early 1997 as a legislative bill to establish limitations on the size of proposed hog farms was substantially amended Tuesday by the Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to include every farm animal in the state.
Although the bill will not be voted on for at least another week, a straw vote of the nine committee members present indicated they approve the concept that creates a managment plan for animal waste — which is not referred to as dealing with “manure” in legislative circles but rather “nutrient management.”
It’s time Maine stopped looking at manure as waste and begin thinking of it as a crop nutrient, said officials gathered Tuesday in Augusta.
Stephanie Gilbert, a soils expert in Androscoggin County, works closely with farmers to develop environmentally safe plans for spreading or disposing of manure.
“This bill is forward thinking,” she said Tuesday. “It will bring Maine up to the standards of other states, such as Pennsylvania, where farmers are seeing increased pressures from urban development.”
Adrian Wadsworth, owner of the largest dairy farm in Androscoggin County and a member of the task force that proposed the bill’s amendment, said, “We farmers are very aware of urban sprawl. More and more people are watching what we do.
“This bill originated out of Aroostook County for hog operations,” said Wadsworth. “But the federal government is looking at dairy operations, as well as beef ranged out West. We’re all swept in.”
If Maine doesn’t create a comprehensive manure management plan, he said, the federal government will come in and do it.
The bill was the offshoot of proposals by Canadian companies to create massive hog farms in Aroostook County. Concerns about water and soil pollution prompted the legislative panel to table the bill last May and create a task force to look into the factory-farming issue and its inevitable byproduct: poop.
Farmers across the state had already been discussing manure management concerns, and when the swine issue came up, it became the perfect opportunity to blend the two issues.
Peter Mosher, director of Maine’s Office of Agriculture, Natural and Rural Resources, presented the task force’s report to the committee Tuesday, along with recommendations that included a moratorium on large hog feeding operations until May 1, 1999, to let legislative rulemaking catch up with changes in farm practices.
Mosher said the task force split into two groups last year, one to study nutrient management and manure and the other group to study confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. Last summer, the task force visited a Quebec hog operation and four very large dairy farms.
Mosher said that after viewing the farms, discussions with farmers and others in the farming industry, and a look at agriculture, land use and environmental rules, the task force realized there was no permitting authority for large-scale animal farming in the state.
His recommendations to the committee:
Support proposed nutrient management legislation, which would require a certified manure plan for every farm having more than 50 “animal units.” An animal unit equals 1,000 pounds of animal weight. If a complaint were received about a farm of fewer than 50 animal units, the owners also would be required to comply.
Require additional standards for much larger farms.
Set a moratorium on new hog operations with more than 500 animal units until May 1, 1999.
Forbid field spreading of manure from Dec. 1 to March 15.
Mosher said that while the moratorium is in place, the task force would continue to work on manure standards that farms will be mandated to follow.
Nearly all of the 40 farmers and officials present at the workshop supported the plan, including a farmer with 100 pigs and a dairy farm owner with more than 500 cows.
John Hemond of the Androscoggin Soil and Water Conservation District told the committee that as a dairy farmer, he would be directly affected by the bill. He proposed a series of public meetings — 16 district farm meetings — to educate the agricultural community about the proposed changes.
“Local informational meetings are a common sense, grass-roots solution that will separate fact and fiction and give farmers an opportunity to discuss common issues and concerns,” he said.
Hemond suggested eight meetings in April, followed by eight in November, each sponsored by district Cooperative Extension offices and each including about 35 farmers. “There may be 700 dairy farms out there,” said Hemond, “but there are about 3,000 individual operations producing manure.”
No date has been set for the final hearing on the bill before the committee.