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Great Lakes Article:

It Happens! And these farms know what to do
David Poulson
Lansing Bureau

LANSING -- While state and farm officials unveil Michigan's first "environmentally verified" farms today, environmental and some rural groups planned to protest what they view as weak attempts to regulate animal waste.

Two farms have completed the voluntary Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which helps farmers develop the most environmentally sensitive way to handle manure. In the coming months, dozens more are expected to apply for the state designation, which lets farmers post a sign attesting to their environmental awareness.

"They develop a plan that's specific to their farm, and they understand that they have to be very careful to protect the environment and they are willing to do what it takes to provide that protection," said Jan Wilford, who is in charge of the program for the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Farmers are trained and then asked to develop a waste handling plan with certified planners before the Michigan Department of Agriculture approves the designation. State officials are announcing the first designations at two hog farms -- one in northwest Ionia county and another in southeast Calhoun County.

But about the same time, Michigan's chapter of the Sierra Club is leading a protest on the steps of the Capitol to highlight what they say are deficiencies in a program that relies on voluntary compliance to make sure large farms are not polluting.

"It would be great if those two farms are environmentally sound, but what about the other couple of hundred that aren't environmentally verified?" said Dan Farough, political director for the Sierra Club.

The protest is to include grassroots organizations and farmers and other rural residents who say they've been harmed by large farm pollution, Farough said. The group is asking for a moratorium on allowing farms that produce large amounts of waste.

The dispute is long-standing. Gov. John Engler resisted federal requirements that the state regulate large farms. After the Sierra Club sued, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last January struck a deal with the state to require permits on large farms that have polluted within the past two years.

The state Department of Environmental Quality estimates that Michigan has fewer than 20 such farms.

The agency also estimates that about 200 to 250 Michigan farms meet the federal definition of producing enough manure to be classified as a large Confined Animal Feeding Operation. CAFOs are farms with more than 1,000 animal units, a term that equates to the manure produced by 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 pigs, 55,000 turkeys or 100,000 chickens.

Under the agreement with EPA, Michigan CAFOs that haven't polluted can either apply for a permit or go through MAEAP to be certified as environmentally assured.

Those farms have to be inspected by the DEQ within the next three years, but no one is sure of their number or where they exist.

"We have not discussed the steps to take to come up with that list," said Ronda Wuycheck, who manages the program for the DEQ.

A task force has been established to draw up the rules for the permit program, but critics say it has little input from nonfarm or nongovernment groups.

"It is heavily stacked with groups with a financial stake in a weak program," Farough said.

In addition to the environmental improvements, farmers benefit from MAEAP by knowing precisely how much manure they apply on fields -- knowledge that can cut the use of commercial fertilizers, Wilford said. The state hopes to certify 85 percent of all livestock producers, regardless of size, as environmentally assured by 2005.

One of the greatest benefits may be the 3-foot by 4-foot sign participants can post on their farms when they participate, advocates said.

"It's a great way to tell your neighbors that you are doing everything you are supposed to do," said Scott Piggott, natural resource specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. "It's probably the only program of its type in the country."

© 2002 Booth Newspapers. Used with permission
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