SALISBURY -- Gov. Martin O'Malley launched a series of Earth Day-related events yesterday by telling farmers he believes they are essential to Maryland's efforts to protect the environment and promising to do whatever is necessary to keep agriculture profitable in the state.
Because fertilizer runoff from farms is a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, environmentalists and farmers have often been at odds. O'Malley's predecessor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., frequently spoke of his belief that farmers must be part of the solution to environmental problems when he sought votes in rural areas, and O'Malley sought to reassure farmers yesterday that he holds the same view.
"We can think of no better way to kick off a tour for Earth Week than here with people who work the Earth and care for the Earth," O'Malley told a crowd of farmers gathered in a barn outside this Wicomico County city. "Our administration is absolutely committed to supporting our family farms and doing everything we can to ensure their profitability."
The governor symbolically showed his interest in agriculture by donning a biohazard suit to tour the chicken houses at the farm of Zeke and Angel Collins. (The suit was for the protection of the chickens, not the governor, Angel Collins explained, saying that in the age of avian flu, farmers are careful about keeping foreign germs away from their flocks.)
Later, O'Malley hopped in the cab of the Collins' John Deere tractor, fired up the engine and turned the wheel back and forth, though he didn't actually drive it anywhere.
In more concrete terms, he showed his commitment to agriculture with cash. He announced that the state will spend a record $8.6 million on cover crop programs this year, helping to reduce erosion and runoff into the bay. He said the state would also fully fund its agricultural land preservation programs this year.
Today, the governor is scheduled to sign on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate compact designed to cut down on global warming.
Zeke Collins said he has been participating in the cover crop program for nearly the entire decade it has been in existence, planting wheat in his fields after the soybeans are harvested.
He said the wheat and beans have a symbiotic relationship - remaining wheat stubble shelters the beans and increases yields. But without the state's help to pay for start-up costs and labor, the cover crops wouldn't be economically viable.
"They're programs that people need, and they're doing great things for the bay," Collins said.
While on the Eastern Shore, O'Malley also toured the agricultural programs at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, where crop researchers showed him new equipment that keeps fertilizer below the soil surface to reduce runoff and an experimental structure for a chicken house that could greatly reduce the amount of waste that finds its way into the bay - all while increasing the health of chicken flocks.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who joined O'Malley for part of the tour, said the new governor has gotten a good reception so far from Maryland's agricultural community.
His agriculture secretary, Roger Richardson, comes from an old Eastern Shore farming family and is widely respected, Stoltzfus said. And O'Malley impressed farmers with his attitude at the state's annual agriculture banquet in February, Stoltzfus said.
"He came early, he stayed late, and he said to farmers, 'I'm not a farmer. I'm a former big-city mayor, but I care about agriculture, and I want you to teach me,'" Stoltzfus said. "He had a good reception because he came in with humility."
O'Malley made similar remarks yesterday, telling the farmers in the Collins' barn, "I need your help to educate me, to tell me what's working and what's not, because if you don't tell me, I can't fix it."
Bobby Guy and L. P. Jones, farmers from Hebron and Salisbury who saw O'Malley yesterday, said the governor sounds good so far. But they said the proof will be in how he funds agricultural programs at a time when the state is facing budget problems and the transfer tax - the main source of land preservation funds - dries up.
Rick Pollitt, the Democrat who became Wicomico's first county executive last year, said he's confident that O'Malley will have good relations with rural Marylanders.
"He's a regular guy," Pollitt said. "He fits in very well on the Shore."