Growers wary of revised NRCS nutrient standards
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Farmers say they are worried that new federal environmental standards could reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers they can use on their fields.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is re-examining its standards for the amount of fertilizer or manure that can be applied on farm fields.
The national standards will be announced in January and are designed to reduce the risk of water pollution from nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Farmers worry that the national standards will not adequately reflect local conditions or reduce the amount of nutrients that can be applied to crops.
The NRCS standards are also used by other regulatory agencies such as the state Department of Ecology, said Bonda Habets, state resource conservationist for NRCS in Washington.
NRCS examines its standards every five years.
The NRCS nutrient management standards affects every state, Habets said. Each state cannot change the national standard except to make it more restrictive.
Nicole Berg, a Paterson, Wash., farmer and Washington Association of Wheat Growers secretary-treasurer, said she is concerned that growers would be subject to a one-size-fits-all mandate.
"A lot of times agencies have a tendency to leave out the common sense," she said.
Kara Rowe, director of outreach for Washington Assocation of Wheat Growers, said the NRCS standards serve as a benchmark. NRCS puts together a stakeholder group to determine how best to mitigate problems when creating the standards, she said.
The Washington Department of Ecology, which regulates phosphorus in non-point source pollution, determines whether the NRCS standards will be adequate to protect the Clean Water Act, Rowe said.
Habets said the standard will cover the whole state, but the phosphorus- and nitrogen-leaching limits factor in the different environmental conditions around the state.
Farmers who receive NRCS money for conservation efforts who fail to meet the new standards would have to return their funding and pay a penalty, Habets said. Farmers may also be subject to penalties for not meeting other regulatory agencies' requirements that use the standards.
Habets said an advisory committee of industry members, stakeholders and other agencies is involved in forming the standards.
"The last few years, we've had a lot more environmental stakeholders, industry, a lot more people looking at these," she said. Comments are made on the national level, then state NRCS offices work on implementation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also uses the standard for concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) rules, Habets said.
Chris Herron, Connell, Wash., wheat farmer and former president of Washington Association of Conservation Districts, said NRCS or state Department of Ecology staffers only look at standards with the focus on cleaning up the environment, while growers also want to maintain their livelihood.
"I want to achieve the perfect, crystal-clear, clean air and water standard," he said. "But in order to do that, it's a $20-an-acre loss."
Herron would rather work with a voluntary agency like NRCS.
"The regulatory agency may drive up to your door some day and say, 'You will do this,'" he said. "That's the impact to farmers -- somebody else that doesn't own his land, pay his bills or feed his kids will tell him how to farm."
WAWG is participating as a watchdog group to ensure farmers' voices are heard, Rowe said.
"We like the group process because we're able to say 'That's reasonable,' or 'That's not reasonable,'" she said. "The agencies are from the perspective of, 'We have to focus on keeping the water clean.' The rest of us have to keep the water clean, but we also have to keep people in business."