Farming and the Bay

WILLIAM C. BAKER

February 25, 1993|By WILLIAM C. BAKER

I was recently asked to address the Delmarva Advisory Council's''Agriculture and the Chesapeake Bay'' conference. The audience included more than 300 farmers and key members of the region's farm bureaucracy. I welcomed the opportunity to address what I feel has been a very unfortunate perception among some farmers and environmentalists, namely, that we are on opposite sides of the proverbial fence. I titled my talk, ''Cooperation, Not Confrontation: the key to Saving Agriculture and the Bay.''

Farmland, like every other land use, contributes its share of pollution to the Bay. Farmers can and must do more to reduce their impact, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to address agricultural pollution through incentives, education, consistent enforcement of existing regulation, and new laws where needed.

But it is important to realize that farming keeps the land porous, allowing rainwater to be absorbed if proper management practices are followed. Most other active uses of the land are more detrimental to the Bay. Developed land, for instance, is impervious, channeling stormwater and pollutants rapidly into the nearest water body.

We at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation want farmland to remain in agriculture. Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening: Sprawling low-density residential and commercial development is rapidly converting farmland.

Worse, scattered development undercuts the infrastructure of agriculture. ''Nuisance ordinances'' are encouraged by those neighbors who may not like the noise or pungent aroma of nearby farms. Eventually, farm suppliers go out of business or change products to more suburban-oriented needs. Local markets for crops disappear. And taxes go up because residential development never produces enough revenue to meet the new demand for schools, sewage-treatment plants, landfills, police protection, etc. Farmers, hit hard financially, are often forced to sell off more land. The vicious cycle continues, while the community and the economy of farming decline.

Rural residents must retake control of their destinies by planning for the future of their region. Counties must determine how much growth is desired, where it is to be located, how to protect sensitive areas, and where agriculture should remain as the predominant land use. Desired growth is accommodated, taxes are kept in check, the Bay and its tributaries are protected, and agriculture is at least given a fighting chance.

If a system of purchased or transferable development rights is also established, farmers will have the opportunity to realize the equity in their land without losing ownership. In this scenario, everyone wins and no one loses.

Saving agriculture and protecting the Bay are compatible goals. Farmers and environmentalists can either learn to work together and have some chance of a better future, or we can fight with one another. Sadly, there are some strident voices -- extremists on both sides of the fence who feel their agenda is advanced by division rather than coalition.

We at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation categorically condemn that approach. Quite simply, we need agriculture, and we believe farmers need us. Together we can achieve enormous progress. We are committed to working with farmers, not against them, in pursuit of our long-term common interests.

William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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