Editorial: These proposed regs stink

The Recorder, April 16th.

Gauging from the reaction of farmers in western Massachusetts, the state Department of Agricultural Resources did more than step in manure when formulating its proposed plant nutrient application regulations. To put it mildly, the message from the people who raise our food is that what the state wants stinks.

And if the state wants to prove that Massachusetts farms are an invaluable resource for the commonwealth and not just quaint and rustic window dressing for tourists from the cities, then it should rethink its approach — radically.

We doubt that anyone will argue with what the agricultural department is trying to do: prevent nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous from finding their way into the state’s groundwater and waterways.

As state officials explain, “These statewide limitations on plant nutrient applications will enhance the ability of municipalities to maximize the credits provided in the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). The regulations further ensure that plant nutrients are applied to agricultural land in an effective manner to provide sufficient nutrients for plant growth while minimizing the impacts of the nutrients on water resources in order to protect human health and the environment.”

In ordinary English, the goal is to cut down on pollution.

But in its attempt to make this happen, the state is taking a broad brush approach that fails to take into account not just differences based upon such things as operations and locations, but just what their proposed requirements would actually mean.

Like paperwork.

Given the regulations that the state is now considering, farmers would be expected to provide detailed information on soil and manure tests, as well as putting together a nutrient management plan that would have to be updated every three years to mesh with University of Massachusetts Extension Service’s “best practices.”

As Tedd White, a West Hawley dairy farmer, said at a recent public hearing on the regulations in Springfield, “… Dairy farmers aren’t billion-dollar corporations. They can’t afford secretaries to handle the paperwork.”

Then there are the restrictions themselves, which have plenty of farmers asking just who state officials consulted in coming up with policy requirements.

Apparently it wasn’t the Extension Service — a logical choice for expert opinion — since the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation pointed out in its critique of the proposal, “… these regulations are not consistent with UMass published information, educational materials …” to the point where there is “outright conflict” between what the agricultural department is suggesting and what UMass has established for guidelines.

We’d like to think that state agriculture officials are smart enough to listen to these criticisms and flexible enough to make necessary changes. The deadline for comments has been extended for 60 days, which may be a chance for farmers and their supporters to help get the message across.

As proposed, these regulations are not a realistic fit. Written comments should be sent to Gregory C. Watson, Department of Agricultural Resources, 251 Causeway St., Suite 500 Boston, MA 02114.