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State lawmakers, governor treat agricultural community well in this year's session

The Baltimore Sun

In funding programs ranging from farmland preservation to cover crops, the General Assembly smiled on farmers during the 90-day session that ended last week.

In a year when money is tight, lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley seemed to favor the Department of Agriculture in the budget process, members of the farm industry say.

Legislators approved $70 million for agriculture land preservation programs and $8.5 million for cover crop initiatives designed to limit pollution of waterways.

At the urging of the governor, lawmakers provided $3 million for the Maryland Agricultural & Resource-Based Industrial Development Corp. This was three times the amount allotted last year to the quasi-public economic development organization that aids farmers and other rural businesses.

"I think we did pretty well," said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, a lobbying group representing 25,000 farm families. "[O'Malley] reached out to agriculture and farmers to say they were important to him and his administration. That was very encouraging. We didn't know what to expect."

Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers, a farm trade association, was among those lingering outside the State House into the late hours Monday night tracking the status of several bills.

"On the whole, it was a good session," Hoot said. "We didn't get everything we wanted, but you never do. We didn't kill everything we wanted to kill, but we killed most of them."

The 2007 session brought a mix of wins and losses for the farm community. The legislative victories included:

Biofuel: The addition of a biofuels representative on the Maryland Agricultural Commission. "This gives a fledging industry in the state more respect," Connelly said.

The commission is a 29-member panel composed of a cross-section of farmers that advises the state agriculture secretary on farm issues.

Maryland Biodiesel Inc., near Berlin, began producing a motor fuel composed of a blend of soybean oil and traditional diesel fuel last year. Hoot said three other business organizations have filed for a permit from the state to build plants that would produce ethanol, a gasoline extender made from corn.

Crop insurance: In a bittersweet victory for farmers during the closing hours, lawmakers passed a bill to change the way the state subsidizes crop insurance. Instead of paying a farmer $2 an acre toward his annual premium, the state will now pay 8 percent of the cost. This is similar to programs in Pennsylvania and Delaware. "Unfortunately, there is no funding for the program, but we are hopeful of getting funding in the future," Hoot said.

Ethics: An ethics bill that was approved on the session's last day would allow the Department of Agriculture to hire workers with farm backgrounds. In the past, such hires were considered a conflict of interest. Connelly said that the bill would have the state ethics panel work with the department to write new hiring regulations.

Dairy: Milk truck drivers won a round in their long fight to be allowed to use larger vehicles. However, the legislation included restrictions. The weight limit on tractor-trailer-type trucks was boosted to 87,000 pounds, up from 80,000 pounds. But lawmakers made it a pilot program limited to 10 counties -- Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington.

Harford, in the midst of the state's dairy region, was excluded.

Trucks traveling on federal interstate highways have a weight limit of 80,000 pounds.

Hunting: A change in the law will allow farmers and their children who work on the farm to hunt on the property or on rented property without a hunting license.

Advisory board: Legislators gave new life to the young farmers' advisory board, which was set to expire in September. The board, composed of farmers ages 45 or younger, serves in an advisory capacity to the state Agricultural Commission.

Some of the disappointments for the agriculture industry included:

Soil conservation workers: A bill to increase the salaries of state Soil Conservation office employees failed.

A state survey last year showed that the employees, who help farmers with plans to protect the environment, earned $2,000 a year less than other state and federal workers in comparable jobs, she said.

Milk: A move to allow farmers to sell raw milk was withdrawn after strong opposition from the state Health Department and the governor's office.

"Farmers opposed it," Connelly said. "They thought the risk was too great. There was a fear that if someone got sick from drinking raw milk, it would hurt milk sales like the spinach scare last year."

Environment: In a setback to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a bill that would have charged new fees on developments with impervious surfaces such a parking lots and blacktop lanes was defeated.

Money from the so-called "green fund" would have been used to help farmers pay for conservation programs to benefit the health of the bay.

Ethanol: A bill that would have boosted the state subsidy for the production of ethanol from small grains -- like hull-less barley as opposed to corn -- failed. Farmers wanted the state to increase the payment to 30 cents a gallon from 20 cents, Hoot said. "Very few things with a price tags on them came out of the Senate this year," she said.

Though the traditional confetti shower that marks the end of the General Assembly session had barely settled, Hoot and Connelly began to look ahead to next year.

"It's going to be tough," Connelly said, noting that the state faces a projected deficit of $1.5 billion to $2 billion next year. "But if the state wants the farm community to do more things to help clean up the bay, the funding needs to be there."

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