Farmers warn: Ag doomed if regulators ignore common sense

Capital Press Staff Writer


LYNDEN, Wash. - After being slapped with a $500 fine for an alleged manure spill, Whatcom County dairyman Roger Bajema invited elected officials to his farm so they could see for themselves why some common sense needs to be injected into how regulators deal with farmers and farming practices.

“If they don’t, they’re going to drive us right out of business,” he said. “No one in his right mind will want to dairy in Western Washington, especially in Whatcom County. Farmers here are scared to death.”

Last weekend, about 25 invited guests showed up at the 20-acre cornfield where Bajema was accused of spreading liquid manure.

Three of the visitors were county council members, and several were fellow farmers.

Under a county ordinance, liquid manure may not be applied to cornfields from Sept. 1 through March 15. The ordinance was enacted in 1997-98 to prevent liquid manure from running into drainage ditches and into waterways leading to Puget Sound.

Bajema told his visitors that last fall, after applying manure to his grass field and seeing that no more manure was coming out of his spreader, he ran the equipment over part of the cornfield in order to dislodge some of the sand that had accumulated on the auger. The sand was residue from his manure lagoon.

He explained he did that to clean the equipment before storing it for the winter.

An anonymous informer called the Ecology Department’s Bellingham office about the situation, and as required by state law, Ecology inspectors arrived on the scene to assess the situation.

After walking the field for about two hours, the two inspectors found evidence that some liquid manure had ended up on the field.

Ecology inspector Andrew Craig said the evidence consisted of a film of manure particles that had separated out of the liquid, which had seeped into the field. The particles were found on a strip of the field.

The two inspectors also gathered a corn stalk and a corn cob that had traces of manure on them. That evidence is being kept in a freezer at Ecology’s office.

Even so, the inspectors could find no evidence that these manure traces were enough to pollute the surface water in a ditch about 1,800 feet away.

“We did not detect an imminent threat of pollution,” said Craig.

Nevertheless, acting under an informal agreement with the county, the inspectors forwarded their report to county officials.

Two weeks later, county compliance officer Jim Thompson arrived on the scene. Bajema said Thompson spent about two hours walking the field looking for signs of manure.

To Bajema’s astonishment, the county slapped him with a $500 fine.

After looking at Ecology’s report and photos, Councilwoman Barbara Bennett, one of the visitors to the cornfield, described the amount of manure on the field as “almost nothing.”

She also said she was surprised that the county had categorized the impact as “moderate” instead of “minor.”

Dairy farmer Dick Bengen, another one of the visitors to Bajema’s corn field, estimates that about half of a five-gallon bucket’s worth of manure ended up on the field.

Bengen sees this incident as yet another example of a time bomb that’s ticking toward the demise of agriculture.

“If they get away with this, they may as well shut the door to dairying in Western Washington,” he said.

Like most dairy farmers, he’s not against enforcement measures to keep farmers from polluting.

“A lot of farmers are glad that the Environmental Protection Agency and Ecology showed up,” he said, referring to agency inspections several years ago that led to a state law requiring dairies to develop farm plans that prevent manure and other runoff from polluting waterways.

Bengen said he didn’t fight against the county’s decision to prohibit liquid manure applications to cornfields during the cold, wet season.

But he did advise the county that since EPA and Ecology were going to take care of dairy pollution problems, it should sunset that ordinance once the farm plans were developed.

“Our fear is that regulators have to regulate,” he said. “They started out going after trickles of manure and now they’re going after drips. We all know that the industry needs an enforcement hammer, but when they swing that hammer, they should be swinging it at something legitimate.”

Apple grower John Belisle, another visitor to Bajema’s cornfield, said that while he knows Ecology inspectors are required to respond to complaints, the county should be able to use some discretion in cases like this.

“Someone’s got to have the leeway to decide if a warning should be issued instead of a fine,” he said.

While Bajema can contest the fine, county officials can only reduce it. For that reason, he has decided to plead his case before a hearing examiner.


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