Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99


News Opinion Editorial

Regulating farms with certainty

The concept behind the proposed Maryland Agriculture Certainty Program is sound. Farmers would voluntarily agree to meet relatively high standards for pollution runoff and hire third-party inspectors to verify the results. In return, they would be spared from new regulations for 10 years.

In a business that is fraught with uncertainty from droughts and floods, rising and falling commodity prices and boom or bust crop yields, the appeal of predictability is clear enough. The model is not unlike the discharge permit of some manufacturers or sewage treatment plants — a kind of contract between regulators and polluters.

But the bill currently being considered in the state Senate has raised a great many concerns — too many to believe any reasonable compromise can be achieved during this legislative session. Far better for it to be done correctly than hastily, particularly when so much is at stake, and that's especially true for farmers.

In trying to help, lawmakers might actually hurt the majority of farmers. For instance, should some farmers get a decade-long exemption from certain future pollution standards, it's entirely possible, even likely, that their peers will be required to do far more to offset that lack of participation somewhere down the road.

And the unintended consequences are not even restricted to farmers. Across the state, Marylanders are facing tougher water pollution standards. Communities are being forced to do more to control storm water runoff, reduce pollution, raise taxes and control growth.

It's all part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-imposed Chesapeake Bay pollution diet (known as TMDL, for total maximum daily load) that primarily seeks to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus, the excess nutrients that are slowly strangling the nation's largest estuary. Agriculture plays a significant role in that effort, as it is the single largest source of pollution and sediment in the watershed.

The certainty bill has split the environmental community. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation endorses it and points to a similar measure that passed last year in Virginia and one under consideration in Delaware. Foundation officials argue that the standards that would be imposed on participating farmers are tough and based on what's expected by 2025. In essence, they point out, the effort speeds up the timetable for compliance by a decade.

But others in the environmental community are doubtful, particularly as new EPA standards are expected to be developed in just four years. There have also been serious questions raised about oversight, accountability and transparency, the certification of inspectors, and the lengthy timetable (even discharge permits are generally limited to five years).

Meanwhile, state officials are already in the midst of developing regulations that would allow farmers to trade pollution credits, which would also depend on meeting specific nutrient targets and providing independent verification. It would be far more prudent to wait and see how a certainty program might dovetail with that.

That lawmakers are anxious to rush to the aid of farmers is no surprise. Witness the recent decision in the House of Delegates to earmark $300,000 in the state budget to potentially help offset the legal bills of Berlin chicken farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson, who were sued by the Waterkeeper Alliance for allegedly polluting a local waterway. The Hudsons won the case, and they and co-defendant Perdue Farms are seeking $3 million in legal fees from the plaintiffs.

Supporters argue that the state played a role in the matter (the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic represented the Waterkeeper Alliance), but the precedent of requiring taxpayers to foot the bill for a private civil suit is outrageous. Either the litigation was frivolous — in which case Waterkeeper Alliance should pay the damages (as provided for under law and pending in federal court) — or it was not and nobody should be reimbursed. Lawmakers who feel strongly that some injustice was perpetrated ought to pull out their own checkbooks and donate to the Hudsons' defense fund.

For too long, the agriculture community has grown accustomed to the pampering of voluntary pollution restrictions and government grants and loans — the more carrot, less stick approach. Any other small business owner would envy the generosity, yet many farmers continue to regard themselves as victims of a war on rural Maryland.

That's not to suggest that Annapolis ought to be tougher on or even indifferent to farmers or farming. Far from it. But what's needed is a balanced approach that considers not just the benefits to be offered farmers but the sacrifices expected from the rest of us. If the General Assembly wants to restore the Chesapeake Bay, it's not just tough love but smart love that's required. That much is certain.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
    Related Content
    • Commercial fishing is regulated
      Commercial fishing is regulated

      Here's some things readers of The Sun should know about commercial fishing ("Rockfish poaching: It's more than just a few fish," Feb. 24). It is against the law to use gill nets in seven states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida. It is also against...

    • Don't subsidize polluting coal plants
      Don't subsidize polluting coal plants

      Gov. Larry Hogan's backtracking on improving air quality for Marylanders means more unnecessary suffering and premature death for citizens and taxpayers through continued corporate welfare for coal plants ("Hogan issues new smog-fighting rule with 'flexibility' for coal plants," April 18).

    • A Maryland-style Earth Day pledge
      A Maryland-style Earth Day pledge

      Since 1970, Americans have set aside one day per year, April 22, to rally and make noise on behalf of the environment. First inspired by a California oil spill, Earth Day has always been about calling attention to problems and advocating for action. Much of it has been directed at government —...

    • Phosphorus rules, finally
      Phosphorus rules, finally

      As we have chided Gov. Martin O'Malley more than once on this page for dragging his feet on regulations intended to reduce the amount of polluting phosphorus pouring into the Chesapeake Bay from farms, it's only fair to herald his decision to move forward with the rules. That he chose to release...

    • Md. farmers are helping protect the bay
      Md. farmers are helping protect the bay

      The farmers in Baltimore County are more than agronomic professionals. Yes, we grow local fruits and vegetables, raise animals and tend to crops that provide the food, fuel and fiber to our community and the world. But did you know we also work every day to protect our waterways, soil and environment?...

    • A farmer's perspective on phosphorous management
      A farmer's perspective on phosphorous management

      From the time I graduated from college and returned to the farm, I have been dealing with government regulations, environmental extremists and animal rights activists.

    • Chesapeake Bay's surprising wins
      Chesapeake Bay's surprising wins

      Here's a sentence that nobody expected to be written this week: The 2015 legislative session turned out pretty well for the Chesapeake Bay and some other environmental causes. How that happened almost defies logic.

    • Larry Hogan's big fish story
      Larry Hogan's big fish story

      One expects a certain amount of bluster and prevarication from politicians. It's all part of telling an audience whatever they want to hear. As H.L. Mencken once noted, "if a politician observed he had cannibals among his constituents, he'd promise them missionaries for dinner."