Preserving farmland and farms


Agriculture: Farmers and environmentalists have often acted like natural enemies, but the Center for Agro-Ecology is seeking common ground.

January 28, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE TYPICAL environmentalist's dilemma about agriculture and Chesapeake Bay goes like this:

Bay restoration can't happen without profound reductions in farm runoff. No effort can be spared to clean up this large pollution source.

But your worst enemy is also your best friend.

Viable farms are the ultimate defense against sprawl development, whose overall environmental, economic, social and aesthetic impacts far outweigh those of farms.

In other words, they hate how you are farming, but they'd hate even more to see you stop. How do you push hard on environmental rules without pushing farmers into developing their land?

But the agriculture community frequently demonstrates that the enviros have no monopoly on conflicted behavior:

Farmers bemoan the increasing difficulty of spraying crops without harvesting lawsuits, of raising dust without reaping angry phone calls, as suburbia infiltrates the countryside. At the same time, many farmers oppose attempts to restrict sprawl, in case they, too, might want to sell.

In other words, they hate what unplanned development is doing to their way of life, but they act as if they'd hate even more to see it stop.

Despite efforts by some farmers and some environmental groups to find common ground, the picture in Maryland remains one of distrust.

The loser continues to be the Maryland landscape, increasingly fractured and uglified by sprawl.

The Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, unveiled Monday at a news conference in the State House, won't by itself end this state of affairs.

But it is a unique group -- an independent, nonprofit corporation sponsoring research, education and public policy initiatives, dedicated to creating prosperous, nonpolluting farms.

The influence and diversity of its 16-member board is reason to think it can accomplish something. Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a longtime bay champion, agreed to be president for the next year.

Other officers include Stephen L. Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, Gerald B. Truitt, Jr., a retired Delmarva Poultry Industry official, and John R. Griffin, former secretary of natural resources.

Other board members continue the mix of often-opposed players -- environmental leaders, farmers, commercial foresters -- and respected problem-solvers such as Washington College President John S. Toll.

The cast was reminiscent of the Edward Hicks' painting " `The `Peaceable Kingdom,' with the lions and lambs lying down together," said U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who, along with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders, turned out to praise the new center.

Implicit in the "agro-ecology" name is the notion that farming, which has dominated a third or more of Maryland's 6.2 million acres for centuries, is an integral part of the bay ecosystem, not something apart from it.

Figuring out how to make modern, chemical-intensive agriculture operate as naturally as possible, while making it pay enough to keep farmers on the land is a challenge no developed nation has yet solved.

The center, with $300,000 for each of the next two years, will be starting small, feeling its way. Its first project is a $75,000 "needs assessment" to guide future programs.

An unofficial early project may be simple trust building among the diverse board. "The word `agro-ecology,' that just freaks some of my [Farm Bureau] board," said Weber. "The agriculture community needs time to get comfortable with [the center]."

"Everybody's got their issues," acknowledged Russell Brinsfield, a University of Maryland agricultural researcher and Dorchester County farmer who has worked since the early 1990s to get such a center established.

"But I cannot believe on some broad scale we can't all agree on some consensus, how we want the landscape to look in this state. On the Eastern Shore, we've got about 10 years before most of what we love about it is gone," he added.

Several board members said there was a strong feeling that "the land use issue" -- how to keep development from overrunning farmland -- ought to be a focus for the new center.

That could involve it in everything from making Smart Growth work, to helping farmers develop specialty markets and alternative crops.

Massachusetts, for example, gives extra money in its farmland preservation program to farmers who need equipment, like greenhouses, to convert to alternative crops, said Brinsfield.

Maybe the center can help build common ground to get away from farmers' assumption that developers are their allies, and environmentalists' tendency to focus more on preserving farmland than farms.

A lot of people deserve credit for getting it off the ground. A key player was Tom Fretz, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland, whose commitment of funding for two years was critical.

But Hughes deserves particular thanks. He has worked even harder for the environment in retirement than during a two-term governorship that saw unprecedented bay legislation passed.

Hughes is active in a highly effective land conservancy on his native Eastern Shore and chaired the committee that investigated outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria in 1997, leading to landmark water quality legislation.

Now he's leading the new center, where his stature should make it harder for all parties to walk away from tough issues that are sure to come.

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