The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, which manages the state's effort to save farmland, has sparred over the years with farmers over their efforts to supplement crop and livestock income with other commercial endeavors. But the foundation supports letting them lease out a limited amount of land for these projects.

"We are taking away from landowners their right to develop land commercially, residentially and industrially," said Carol West, the foundation's executive director. "But we understand our landowners are having a hard time making farming work for them. We have asked for leeway to loosen that rein."

Farmland preservation programs in Pennsylvania and New York allow farmers to lease land for electricity generation, according to Apex's Utt.

Lawmakers say they're drawn to help farmers and hope to avoid potential pitfalls in the change. One challenge that threatens to limit or even kill the legislation is opposition from the Defense Department and its supporters in the General Assembly to anything that would allow wind energy projects within 46 miles of Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary's County. The towering blades could interfere with aviation radar and drive away a major economic engine, they say.

"Farmers have got to be profitable, just like any other businessman or -woman in the state," said Del. Maggie McIntosh during a recent hearing on the legislation. The Baltimore Democrat is chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "You just can't continue to stay on land that's driving you further in debt. We do need to have positive solutions," she said.

Lawmakers have proposed several amendments to address the concerns of conservationists, including limiting the type of projects allowed and requiring farmers to pay the state 10 percent of whatever they earn from renewable energy. Those funds would be plowed back into farmland preservation, which, like many conservation programs, has suffered funding shortages in recent years.

With those changes, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation would withdraw its opposition, said Elaine Lutz, a lawyer with the Annapolis-based environmental group. But it still would not support the legislation.

"We're worried it's a slippery slope," Lutz said, creating more pressure to allow other commercial activities on preserved farmlands.

"We want to see clean energy created, and we want to see incentives" for farmers to stay on their land, she told lawmakers. "However, these easements have already been bought by the taxpayer. … If we start chipping away at that, it hurts the little that's left in the public's trust of doing with the money what we say we're going to do."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com