Farmers fare well in Maryland's 2008 legislative session

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland farmers are getting more respect in Annapolis these days. This was evident during the recently ended 90-day session of the General Assembly.

"Most members of the General Assembly realize that farmers are doing their part to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay," Valerie Connelly, director of government relations at the Maryland Farm Bureau, said after the close of the annual legislative session.

"The farm community and the legislature have a lot better rapport now than in the past," she added. "Maybe this is because the environmentalists now realize that keeping our farms is important to accomplishing their goals."

When Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, looked back on the session, she concluded: "Overall, it was a pretty positive session for agriculture. There was nothing really damaging."

This was not the case a decade ago when farmers were being demonized by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening and members of the General Assembly.

Glendening blamed farmers for the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida that resulted in fish kills, closed sections of three rivers to recreational use and raised questions about the safety of Maryland seafood.

A wave of Pfiesteria hysteria swept the state and farmers were labeled the bad boys by environmentalists.

That thinking began to change in early 2006. That's when the head of one of the state's leading environmental groups -- the Chesapeake Bay Foundation -- began preaching that farmland was better for the health of the bay than residential development.

That message seemed to be on the minds of lawmakers as they passed a number of bills benefiting agriculture and killed others that could have been damaging to the state's largest industry.

"The farm community made out pretty well during the session," said Connelly.

The legislative victories included:

In a year of belt tightening and budget cuts, $25 million was retained in the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund. The bulk of the money will go to farmers to help pay for best-management practices to benefit the environment.

Farmers will be paid nearly 90 percent of the cost of planting cover crops used to absorb excess nutrients from the ground. Funds could also be used for the construction of poultry manure storage pits and the planting of buffer strips along streams and rivers.

Passage of a dairy farmer emergency trust fund bill. Although the bill lacks any money, it opens the door for future funding.

The bill is aimed at bringing Maryland in line with nearly a dozen other East Coast states that subsidize their dairy farmers when milk prices fall below the cost of production.

Maryland has lost about 85 percent of its dairy farms since 1970 and continues to lose farms at nearly twice the national rate.

Despite not having the needed $15 million in funding, Connelly said passage of the farm trust fund bill "was a good thing. It sends a message to dairy farmers that the state is concerned about their problems and wants to keep them on the farm."

A second dairy bill was aimed at out-of-state dealers that allegedly sell their milk in Maryland below their cost of production to expand their market share here.

The legislature requested the Department of Agriculture to study the impact of such a bill on consumers and to look into how other states are dealing with the issue.

Once again, lawmakers rejected the sale of raw milk. Dairy farmers opposed the legislation. They feared that a publicized illness from the consumption of raw milk could seriously hurt their industry.

A bill that increases the transfer tax on farm property sold for development from 5 percent to 6.25 percent. The resulting funds would be used to help children purchase the farms of their parents and for young people to move into the industry.

A provision in agricultural land preservation regulations that requires a child receiving a farm lot from his or her parents to sign an agreement that the surrounding land is to remain in farming, even if it is a different type of farming operation in the future.

The legislation would apply to anyone else purchasing the farm lot in the future.

Establishment of a task force to study the gypsy moth infestation in the state and report its findings to the governor and General Assembly by Aug. 31.

Last year the state suffered its worst infestation of the tree-killing moth in 12 years, and the damage ranged from Cecil to Garrett counties.

The defeat of legislation that would have required labeling of all foods from cloned animals.

Also killed was a bill promoted by the state attorney general that would require the Department of Agriculture to release a farmer's nutrient management plan if requested by a member of the public.

A bill to prohibit bear hunting in Maryland also was rejected by lawmakers.

Despite the state's budget problems, lawmakers saw fit to give pay raises to the state soil conservation office employees.

"It was a one-grade increase in their salaries," Hoot said, "but it was a step in the right direction."

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

Hoot summed up the 90-day session this way: "For farmers, it was a do-no-harm session."

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