Farmers to boost legislative influence

Nutrient regulations are first on agenda for Md. growers

January 25, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The 1999 legislative session doesn't offer many bills that will directly affect farmers, and it's a good thing: They're still preoccupied with a bill passed in the 1998 session that will regulate how and when they apply organic and chemical fertilizers.

"Everything else has been overshadowed by this," said Bill Rasche, vice president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau. "The No. 1 topic, no matter what county, is nutrient management. Any time the discussion gets going, that's one of the topics that comes up."

The nutrient management law was passed last year in response to the Pfiesteria outbreak that killed fish in lower Maryland waterways. But the regulations that farmers have to follow are being ironed out.

The regulations are to be released any day for public review before a final draft is adopted in the spring.

Rasche said farmers hope that by continuing to make legislators aware of how the regulations would affect them, they will be better able to modify them, and get money to support them.

To have a stronger voice in government in general, the Maryland Farm Bureau voted last month to form a political action committee.

With that designation, the bureau can contribute to political campaigns and make endorsements that carry the weight of an organization that is 14,100 members strong.

"The farm bureau generally has not gone this route in the past, but over the years, we have had less and less influence in the legislature," said Pat Langenfelder, a Chestertown farmer who is among the Maryland Farm Bureau members forming the political action committee.

Fewer farmers serve in the legislature, she said. Farm bureau staff count two full-time farmers in the Maryland Senate, and are unsure how many are in the House of Delegates.

Until now, farmers might have individually contributed to and endorsed candidates, but had no collective voice in politics, Langenfelder said.

"It would be as a group effort, rather than Pat Langenfelder endorsing someone: who cares? It's more effective if we have a group," she said.

Rasche, a Taneytown farmer and businessman, said the PAC will provide a more organized voice for farmers, but farmers will always express a broad range of opinions.

"Farmers and the farm bureau are two different things," Rasche said. "Farmers agree to have the farm bureau act for them, but each and every one of us has a different voice and a different opinion on things. We've always been independent and outspoken about things and we like being that way. It's hard for the group to work as one.

"It's just the nature of the animal," he said.

Although the nutrient management regulations are dominating the talks farmers are having with their state representatives, farmers here and across the state are watching other legislation: Money from the tobacco settlement. Maryland is among several states set to receive money from the tobacco industry in a settlement over the health care costs of smoking-related illnesses. The governor and legislators are to decide how to use the money, and the American Farm Bureau is urging states to use 50 percent of the money to strengthen the agricultural economy.

While most of Maryland's tobacco farmers are on the Eastern Shore, the money could go to a broad base of farmers, said Valerie Connelly, the Maryland Farm Bureau director of government relations.

Farmland preservation. Farmers are watching to see how much money goes into programs that help preserve farmland.

Money for roads vs. money for mass transit. Connelly said farmers don't want to see road improvements ignored because that could prevent trucks from getting in and out to transport their commodities.

Carroll County Agriculture Center. Farmers and 4-H groups here are hoping to get at least $300,000 as a second installment toward building a $2.235 million indoor arena at the Westminster center. The state has given $400,000 toward the building, and $1 million has been raised locally.

The Carroll delegation plans to reintroduce a bill that last year asked for $300,000 or more.

Members of the Agriculture Center Board expect to release soon how much they will ask for this year.

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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