ANNAPOLIS — Which came first: the chicken, the egg or the flu?
In the past decade, Maryland has seen a growth in niche poultry markets where chickens, ducks and turkeys are sometimes sold without record of their home farm. This has raised concern among animal health professionals, who are trying to protect the state’s avian influenza controls, which rely on sale records to quickly locate farms and eradicate sick flocks.
“Birds are being mingled, and if they do get sick, we have a hard time tracing them back to the farm of origin,” State Veterinarian Michael Radebaugh said in an interview on Tuesday.
The state’s current poultry regulations were drafted in 2005 to prevent a similar outbreak, and this session, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is asking the General Assembly to consider a rewrite that would expand the agency’s right to oversee the sale and transportation of poultry at emerging markets, including swap meets, flea markets, internet sales and poultry dealers.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee heard the bill on Tuesday with little objection, but asked the department to clarify the licensing requirement for individuals who transport live birds.
“So, I’m just a random truck driver — I don’t buy them, I don’t sell them, I don’t exchange it — I drive the chickens to another place. Do I really have to get a license for that?” Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17) hypothetically asked Radebaugh at the hearing.
No, that is not the intent of the bill, he said. The intent is to target high-risk poultry dealers who may be picking up birds across state lines and driving them back into Maryland.
The bill gives his agency, Animal Health, broader authority, but it also gives the secretary of agriculture the right to exempt certain people from the annual licensing requirements. That would likely include 4-H projects, fair sales or drivers such as the ones Kagan described.
Overall, bill SB 56 is meant to improve the records kept on the sale and movement of poultry. Records are imperative because they reduce the amount of time it takes Animal Health to respond to positive or inconclusive avian influenza tests.
Right now Animal Health is testing birds in southern Maryland after a duck was found during routine surveillance at an auction market to carry a strain of flu that was not pathogenic, but could easily morph into a strain that could be passed between birds, Radebaugh said. All subsequent tests have been negative and the farm of origin was identified.
“The quicker you get to it, the better. It’s amazing how these birds get moved along,” Radebaugh said.
The Maryland Farm Bureau supports the bill.
“I haven’t heard of anyone that has a squabble with this,” said Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
The committee is also considering two changes to the state’s agriculture article that would bring it up to date with legislation passed in previous sessions.
The first is SB 58, which removes references to “agricultural districts.” Back in 2007, the Legislature removed the requirement that farmers who wanted to apply for farmland preservation had to first place their farm in an agricultural district. It then legally terminated most of the districts in 2012.
Frederick County is one of the few counties to still recognize agricultural districts, because it also offers those landowners a property tax credit.
About 4,200 acres of farmland in Frederick County are under an agricultural district agreement. Landowners that currently have a district agreement can remain in it, even if the bill passes, and continue to receive the tax credit, said Anne Bradley, the county’s land preservation coordinator.
The committee had no questions or objections to the request at the hearing.
The second change, in SB 57, also modifies language in the agriculture article to change the length of time counties have to spend their money allocated for farmland preservation from three to six years.
The state farmland preservation program has been operating on a biennial application cycle, which made it hard for some jurisdictions to spend their money within the three-year window, Ferguson said.
The House of Delegates passed a bill in the land use article in 2018 that extended the time frame, but it was not adjusted in the agriculture article, Ferguson said. The bill would write the same language that passed last year into the state’s agriculture article and eliminate contradictions that currently exist between the two sections.
Michelle Cable, executive director of the state’s farmland preservation program, assured lawmakers that the bill was not asking for anything new. It is purely housekeeping to make the two sections match.
But the fix overall may not be as desperately needed as it once was. The state farmland preservation program will be moving back to a single-year application cycles starting in 2019, and it is expected to remain that way for the foreseeable future, Cable said.
The Maryland Farm Bureau has come out in support of both bills.
“There should be no opposition to them,” Ferguson said. “I would say, yes, they’ll pass.”