Grain farmers honor protector Guns, Cecil delegate, helped soften impact of pollution control

Agriculture

July 24, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

CENTERVILLE -- Del. Ron Guns, the Cecil County Democrat who led the legislative push this year for a more moderate approach to dealing with the Pfiesteria outbreaks, offered some insight yesterday into the behind-the-scenes fighting over the controversial bill.

There was a philosophy in the General Assembly to "punish, punish, punish and bring 'Big Chicken' [the poultry industry] to its knees," Guns said in a speech at the annual meeting of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

"We knew if that happened we would be to our knees, too," he told the approximately 200 farmers attending the session at the Queen Anne's County 4-H Park.

The poultry industry uses about 80 percent of the grain grown in Maryland and virtually all the grain grown on the Eastern Shore.

Under the compromise bill, Maryland farmers are required to have a phosphorus-reducing plan in effect by 2004, two years later than originally proposed.

To soften the blow of the requirements, the measure authorizes millions of dollars worth of technical assistance, subsidies and tax credits to help farmers draw up plans.

Lost in the debate, Guns said, was the fact that Maryland already has about 1 million acres of farmland under nutrient-management plans to control runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

By comparison, he said, Pennsylvania has less than 500 acres covered by such plans.

"Agriculture did not bring this bug here," he said, referring to the toxic microbe believed to have triggered fish kills in three Eastern Shore waterways last year. "Mother Nature did."

Guns' remarks came shortly after the grain producers group honored him as its man of the year.

The chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee was cited for his support of agriculture and his understanding of the industry.

As was the case this time last year, weather was on the minds of most farmers at the grain meeting. Melvin Baile Jr., a Carroll County farmer and president of the association, said the spotty showers of the past few days have done little to ease the threat of heat and drought damage to the state corn crop.

Recalling last year's drought, which cost farmers an estimated $147 million in lost income, Baile said, "Two years of red ink is going to be hard on a lot of farmers."

Robert Hutchison of Cordova said he and his Eastern Shore neighbors "are losing bushels of corn every day" because of the lack of rain. "It's make-or-break time," he said.

With corn prices down about 30 percent from what farmers were getting last year, Hutchison said, "it will take a good crop just to break even this year."

Kevin McNew, an economist with the agricultural and resource economics department of the University of Maryland, College Park, said that in terms of prices, 1998 could be the harshest year of the decade.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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