Ruffling feathers

In March 2009 a family of poultry farmers, the Hudsons of Berlin, Md., began accepting Class A biosolids from Ocean City to use as fertilizer on their farm, never imagining the nightmare that would follow. The farm is not a giant in the grand scheme of chicken production, and also produces corn, soybeans and beef cattle.

Chemical fertilizers have long been a bone of contention among the environmental crowd so the Hudsons seemed to be making a smart move, getting clean organic material to use instead. It undoubtedly seemed, at least on the surface, to be a sensible financial move as well. However, that quickly changed.

In case you are wondering about just what "Class A biosolids" means, here is an excerpt from the Siemans Waste and Water Library, "Class A biosolids contain minute levels of pathogens. To achieve Class A certification, biosolids must undergo heating, composting, digestion or increased pH that reduces pathogens to below detectable levels. Some treatment processes change the composition of the biosolids to a pellet or granular substance, which can be used as a commercial fertilizer. Once these goals are achieved, Class A biosolids can be land applied without any pathogen-related restrictions at the site. Class A biosolids can be bagged and marketed to the public for application to lawns and gardens."

Sounds fairly innocuous and seems like recycling to me, downright green in fact. However, in March 2010 Waterkeeper Alliance, a Robert Kennedy anti-agriculture gadfly group, brought suit against the Hudson family under the Clean Water Act, alleging that a pile of blackish material, which they discovered by flying a plane over the farm, was chicken poop.

Actually the family stores chicken waste in covered storage facilities, as is correct, to prevent potential problems with runoff. The dark stuff was Class A biosolids.

Perhaps this zealous act of conservation by litigation might be understandable. Pollution of coastal waterways and damage to the Chesapeake Bay are a big issue. However, when informed that the substance was not chicken manure, and was in fact, clean, composted, material safe enough to be spread on urban lawns, the organization proceeded with the lawsuit anyhow.

At the behest of the Maryland Department of the Environment the Hudson family moved the pile, which they were storing to be spread when the ground wasn't frozen, so as not to generate unwanted runoff, a bit farther from a drainage ditch.

Didn't matter. Waterkeeper, along with other environmental groups, was on the hunt. They scented big game with deep pockets, and were looking to cash in. Many poultry farmers, such as the Hudsons, are under contract to major food corporations to raise birds for them. In this case the company involved was Purdue, a huge player in the poultry industry and a tempting target for environmentalists, who didn't seem to care who else got caught up in the legal juggernaut they launched.

The lawsuit quickly caught the attention of farmers everywhere. If this environmentally conscious family could be sued despite doing everything they could to comply with clean water regulations, the ramifications could be serious for anyone involved in animal agriculture.

Farm Bureau took notice as well.

According to Savefarmfamilies.org, Maryland Farm Bureau's Valerie Connelly said of the suit, "If they can take a truly small family farm and put them under in this situation, then everybody's at risk. Part of the risk is they have to bow out early because they don't have the money to go on. They may agree to something that would affect the rest of the farm community. It could be a term of contracts in the future."

A convoluted journey through various courts began, which soon involved the University of Maryland Law School, which represented Waterkeeper, despite threats from the Maryland legislature to defund the school for using taxpayer dollars in such a fashion.

For three years the battle raged while farmers and ranchers across the nation watched and worried. Groups were formed to support the Hudson family, as legal expenses mounted into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the governor of Maryland took an interest, speaking out in support of the farm.

In a letter to the dean of the law school he said, "I am writing to express my concerns about the ongoing injustice being perpetrated by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic's continued pursuit of costly litigation of questionable merit against Alan and Kristen Hudson and their family-owned farm." He added, "Corporations can defend themselves against such questionable suits even from deep-pocketed litigants. But the Hudsons must retain their own representation and, due to extensive legal fees, they now face possible bankruptcy and loss of their land. They face this possibility even if, as is quite possible, they are ultimately exonerated from the environmental wrongdoing alleged by this suit -- a suit that persists notwithstanding the facts found by the Maryland Department of the Environment."

The nightmare the farm family experienced must have been all-consuming. However, last week in a 50-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William M. Nickerson declared that Waterkeeper had not proved its suit.

According to The Baltimore Sun he scolded some of the litigants, including the Assateague Coastal Trust, even though they had been dismissed from the suit early on. "Writing that it appeared to him that the Waterkeeper group was trying to use the litigation to force poultry companies to alter or abandon their operations on the Eastern Shore, the judge said he observed in her testimony and her conduct a certain ends-justify-the-means approach, where truth can be spun to achieve a desired goal."

Elsewhere in the article, Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, said, "Judge Nickerson's ruling today goes a long way toward ensuring that both our agricultural heritage and our effort to restore the Bay can move forward cooperatively and in harmony, rather than through damaging litigation."

Although the verdict was much welcomed by the agricultural community nationwide, environmental groups are already threatening to appeal.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs

at http://northviewdiary.blogspot.com/