EASTON — Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder shared his thoughts on issues including the state of Maryland agriculture, Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts and the economics of the Eastern Shore’s poultry and agriculture industries during an interview with The Star Democrat.
Bartenfelder is a lifelong farmer and former state delegate for Baltimore County who now lives on the Mid-Shore. Though his job has taken him away from the daily operations of his farm, his children have mostly taken it over.
Now that he’s the state agriculture secretary, he’s spent the last year and a half — since his appointment by Gov. Larry Hogan — promoting Maryland’s farmers, including its poultry industry, as people who want to see a clean environment.
After all, it’s how they make their living.
Maryland is being elevated as a national model for pollution reduction, in regards to the state’s effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Bartenfelder said in a June 1 interview.
“You’ve got to look at all the positive marks that the Bay is getting and the progress that we’ve made, and that progress has been made from Maryland farmers and Maryland agriculture, not the surrounding states yet,” he said.
Bartenfelder said the other states in the Bay watershed — Virginia and West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia — need to follow suit with Maryland’s efforts in order for Bay cleanup to be most effective.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture held a summit on Earth Day, inviting surrounding states’ agriculture secretaries to talk about issues Maryland faces and how they could possibly help.
“One of the things that I did hear from the other secretaries ... was they’re a little surprised or shocked, what with everything that we’ve done and the progress we’re making, that we’re still under legislative pressure to enact more changes and to do more,” Bartenfelder said. “In their states, it’s just the opposite, where the legislatures are almost dragging their feet with making changes.”
Scientists believe agriculture to be one of the main polluters of the Bay. But farmers don’t want to harm the environment, they are just doing what they’ve been told to do for decades, Bartenfelder said.
He said farmers were told to be more concerned with nitrogen than phosphorus, both considered nutrient polluters of the Bay. Now, phosphorus, of which chicken manure is rich with, is under fire, as scientists have discovered that it too moves underground and into Bay waterways.
“They followed what they were told they could do. Now, science has changed and facts changed. Now they’re following, again, what they’re told they’re supposed to do,” he said. “But, after years of doing what they were told they could do and unknowingly building that phosphorus level up, it’s still going to take a while for it to decrease.”
Bartenfelder and MDA legislative officers spent a lot of time in the 2016 Maryland General Assembly fighting several bills aimed at Maryland agriculture. One that got much of the attention was a bill regarding the poultry industry and the state’s manure transport program, which eventually did not pass.
The bill, the Poultry Litter Management Act, would have made poultry integrators, or companies like Allen Harim and Perdue, responsible for hauling away excess poultry manure, estimated at about 228,000 tons. That number — one often touted by environmental organizations as a reason to enact change — is not entirely accurate, Bartenfelder said.
He said about 196,000 tons of the the 228,000 tons was slated to be transferred to another farmer and spread on a field. On the Shore, poultry manure is a valuable fertilizer for crops. Whatever some farmers don’t use, they share with or sell to their neighbors.
“You’re counting it as excess, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s excess, because it’s got a destination,” Bartenfelder said.
But, he said it was surprising to him that the bill, put in by two urban Democrats in the House and Senate, was introduced this year, and he hopes it doesn’t return next year.
That bill and others came on the heels of negotiations between all interested parties the previous year on the Phosphorus Management Tool, which calculates how much phosphorus a farmer can spread on their field. Bartenfelder and the MDA argued for more time for the PMT to work, rather than enact more legislation they said would be detrimental to the poultry industry.
Bartenfelder said he realized this past legislative session that there aren’t many farmers left in the General Assembly. He said what a lot of urban legislators need is more education when it comes to the impacts regulations and legislation has on farmers and the agricultural community.
To accomplish that, starting last year, the MDA invited lawmakers to farms to see the operations for themselves. While it wasn’t as well attended as he hoped, he saw the results during committee hearings this past legislative session, when urban lawmakers would bring up facts they learned on a farm tour. There are plans to do lawmaker farm tours again this year, he said.
The poultry industry rules the Shore, Bartenfelder said, who added that he has not tried to shy away from communicating its importance to the local economy.
“As far as agriculture goes, poultry is the No. 1 sector of agriculture in the state,” he said. “But here on the Eastern Shore, it’s the absolute hub that turns, not only the agriculture community, but the entire economy on the Shore.”
Some environmental groups have targeted chicken houses on the Shore, too, especially on the lower Shore counties where the poultry industry is most prevalent.
Chicken house permits are pending and the houses being constructed are bigger than the old ones, and opposition groups and individuals have a list of concerns including pollution and public health issues.
But Bartenfelder said the industry isn’t expanding, just maintaining pace.
For instance, driving down the road and seeing nine chicken houses doesn’t mean that all of them are operational. Some are obsolete, he said.
Federal requirements are mandating that chickens have more room in the houses, which means the houses have to be bigger to maintain economic viability in order to put the same amount of chickens in them. That, and they’re more environmentally efficient, too, he said.
“But to the naked eye, riding by, they’re going to think they’re all full of chickens, and they’re not,” he said.
Bartenfelder also said that there are many chicken growers ready to retire and get out of the business. Meanwhile, poultry integrators have young people lined up and ready to enter the industry and awaiting construction of their chicken houses.
New houses come into production, old ones go out, and the pace is maintained, he said.
Bartenfelder said he’s encouraged for the future of agriculture in Maryland. He’s had time to make rounds across the state, and there are young people who are itching to get into the industry. With modern college programs, it could lead them to a number of different fields within the agriculture industry.
“A couple years ago, I would have said that the farm population has grown older and there isn’t a so-called bench behind them to replace them,” he said. “But now, I mean, I’ve really had an opportunity to get around and what I’ve seen is encouraging. And, as I’ve said, it tells me that there’s definitely a future for agriculture in this state.”
Bartenfelder has experienced that firsthand with his own farm. His children and a son-in-law are taking the reins, and he said he doesn’t get to control much of the operations anymore.
He said he’s proud of the way they’ve carried on the farm without him being there, especially when he’s seen it go the opposite way so many times.