Bay foundation plans to support farmers

Maryland

September 21, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,sun reporter

Save the farms, save the bay?

After years of criticizing agriculture as a leading source of pollution in the bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation unveiled a new strategy yesterday of supporting farmers to prevent suburban sprawl.

Will Baker, president of the environmental advocacy organization, said his group has hired a Washington law firm to lobby for more federal aid for Maryland farmers who participate in voluntary programs to reduce runoff.

Some environmentalists question the foundation's new approach, saying that farms remain the top source of pollution in the bay and need to be controlled by stronger regulations.

But Baker said the foundation will neither seek new regulations to control farm fertilizer pollution nor file any lawsuits against farmers.

Instead, it will push for more government money to help improve the environmental practices of farmers, and will pursue a "spirit of mutual trust" with the industry, according to a report released yesterday.

Baker appeared at a news conference with Maryland Farm Bureau President Earl "Buddy" Hance, a former adversary. "This is history in the making -- the Maryland Farm Bureau and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation standing together," Baker said on a farm in Prince George's County.

"Farming in the bay region is in jeopardy. To ensure farming's future, clean water and a healthy Chesapeake Bay ... we must support farmers in reducing runoff," Baker said.

The number of farms in the bay region has dropped 75 percent over the last 50 years, in part because of pressure from suburban sprawl, which produces up to three times more pollution per acre as a well-run farm, foundation officials said.

Maryland farmers received about $16 million in federal aid in 2003 to participate in conservation programs to limit the runoff of fertilizer into streams -- by planting buffer strips of grasses and trees beside waterways, for example.

This is about half as much per acre as other states -- Iowa received a total of $224 million -- and Maryland farmers should receive a larger share, foundation officials said.

After the outbreak of the toxic alga Pfiesteria was attributed to manure runoff in 1997, the bay foundation was at odds with the farm bureau over legislation requiring all farmers to create plans to limit their use of fertilizer.

Today 72 percent of Maryland's 8,300 farmers have such nutrient management plans.tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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