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Rural concerns addressed at conference

ABERDEEN - State legislators representing rural areas in Maryland said they will work to try to get some regulatory relief for their constituents and try to maintain, or increase, funding in the budget for agriculture programs at a conference in Aberdeen Thursday.
The legislators spoke at the 2013 Rural Action Assembly at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. State Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, R-District 37B, and Senators J.B. Jennings, R-District 7, and Thomas Middleton, D-Charles County, spoke at the event.
The speakers pointed out numerous issues facing rural areas, including access to health care, issues concerning education and what they consider problematic environmental regulations that have been handed down by the state.
The conference is hosted by the Maryland State Office of Rural Health, Maryland Rural Health Association and Rural Maryland Council. At the all-day conference Thursday, attendees listened to industry leaders, state officials and other stakeholders looking to coordinate on a legislative agenda for the 2014 legislative session. Topics included how rural Maryland will deal with issues facing public health, economic development, forestry and the environment.
The conference started Wednesday and will conclude today.
Eckardt said that one of the largest issues facing rural areas was the amount of regulations that have been handed down by the state and federal government in recent years. This includes regulations concerning stormwater management, wastewater treatment plants and discussions in Annapolis about the possibility of a higher minimum wage for the state. One of the regulations that may have the largest impact for farmers is the new Phosphorus Management Tool, which many farmers fear may force them to stop using organic manure on their land.
"The regulations are killing everybody," Eckardt said in an interview after the talk.
Eckardt said there is a request for a hearing on the Phosphorus Management Tool regulations and a request that the regulations be put into legislation to be passed in Annapolis.
Eckardt said she may author a bill to put a moratorium on further nutriment management regulations until the ones that have been implemented are evaluated. Eckardt represents Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico counties.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture initially wanted the new phosphorus regulations to be implemented for the fall planting season under emergency status, but the department decided to withdraw that proposal in order to propose requiring farmers to start planning for the new requirements after Oct. 1, 2014, and start implementing the regulations on their farms in 2015.
Farmers, particularly ones who raise livestock or poultry, fear the new proposed rules may leave them with stockpiles of manure that they cannot sell, which could lead to legal issues and production problems.
Middleton said the legislators may need to fight for additional funding for the state's Manure Transport Program, which provides payments of up to $20 per ton for travel costs for manure. He said farmers are skeptical of the proposed new phosphorus rules.
"It's something that the farming community [doesn't] think is scientifically based enough, and that has got to be dealt with, and also what is going to happen with all this manure?" Middleton said. "... So the whole plans for a Manure Transport Program become very, very important, and in order to deal with it, I think you are going to have to put more money into it."
But the news was not all negative for farmers. Middleton said he thought best management practice programs, such as cover crops programs, will continue, and the programs may even increase in funding as the environmental community sees them as essential.
Joanne Weant, agricultural development specialist with the Carroll County Department of Economic Development, said farmers in the county are concerned about the amount of regulations that have been implemented in recent years. Weant, who attended the conference Thursday, said although the Phosphorus Management Tool will not have as large an impact for Carroll County, she said farmers still worry about any changes that could hurt them.
"The regulations coming down the pike just keep coming," she said. "There is a need for regulatory relief."
In breakout sessions, stakeholders discussed other issues facing rural areas.
In a session concerning the impacts of climate change on rural Maryland, officials from rural counties discussed how they should address the effects of extreme weather events and other health risks.
Mary Handley, who works for Delmarva Community Services Inc. in Dorchester County, said that many elderly residents she serves do not believe in climate change, so may be resistant to public health messages that use the term. Handley, who was in the audience for the session, said perhaps simply talking about storms without using the term would help to get elderly residents to prepare for weather events.
Weant said she attended some forestry workshops Thursday to learn about resources she could refer people to in the county on issues concerning how to manage forested and wooded areas.
A session Thursday morning concerning the U.S. Farm Bill that would feature Chief Counsel Anne Hazlett and Policy Director James Glueck of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry was canceled as a temporary agreement on the government shutdown and the averted debt crisis was reached Wednesday. The two were called back to work as the U.S. Senate and House look to negotiate an agreement on the Farm Bill.
Jennings said lawmakers representing rural areas faced big challenges convincing legislators of more urban areas to make their issues a priority. But he said he still held out hope that his colleagues would assist rural areas, and said lawmakers in Maryland are much more cooperative than in Washington, D.C.
"We do have a lot of power - more than people think," he said.

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