2 panels examine state agriculture

Governor's committee focuses on industry

legislators' group targets farming practices

December 09, 2005|By MARY ELLEN SLAYTER | MARY ELLEN SLAYTER,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Maryland Agricultural Commission, meet the Agricultural Stewardship Commission.

One group answers to the governor, the other to the Senate president and House speaker. Both plan to make recommendations for the 2006 legislative session on how to best preserve farming in Maryland, and not necessarily the same ones.

Not that the agriculture community is complaining.

"We're just delighted that we've got that much interest in farming now," said Lewis R. Riley, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

The Maryland Agricultural Commission is a 24-member group appointed by the governor as an advisory body to the secretary of agriculture. Its members include representatives from all major farming industries in Maryland, as well as the dean of the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The commission presented its preliminary recommendations Tuesday at the Maryland Farm Bureau's annual convention in Ocean City.

The Agricultural Stewardship Commission was created in April, charged with coming up with draft legislation relating to farming practices and their results, particularly farm wastes, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Its focus has since broadened to include farm preservation, as well.

Its members, who were appointed by the Senate president and the House speaker, include Kim L. Coble, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Earl "Buddy" Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, as well as state delegates and senators. The group held its final working meeting Wednesday in Annapolis, and it plans to offer draft legislation in the General Assembly's next session.

"I think the work of the two groups is going to complement each other," said Del. J.B. Jennings, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties and member of the Stewardship Commission. "The governor definitely spearheaded the issue, but both branches are willing to approach the issue and work hard to resolve these issues."

Both groups seem to agree on the importance of land-use issues. The Agricultural Commission's report will probably recommend that lawmakers put money into MARBIDCO, a program to help young farmers buy land. The program was created this year but has not been funded. The Stewardship Commission also included backing for the program, to the tune of at least $5 million in its first year, among its draft policy recommendations released at Wednesday's meeting.

Both groups also recommend greater funding for agriculture research at the University of Maryland, and increased funding for cooperative extension services.

But their work has not dovetailed entirely, officials say.

The governor's group isn't as much concerned with environmental issues, said Doug Scott, assistant secretary for resource conservation for the Department of Agriculture. Scott has attended both groups' meetings over the past few months. More important to their agency, both Scott and Riley said, is preserving farm profitability.

"The greatest land preservation program in the world is a good farm operation," Riley said.

That tilt is seen clearly in the draft recommendations the commission shared with farmers Tuesday, which were focused on investing in research into farming techniques, marketing Maryland farmers' products, helping young farmers buy land, strengthening "right to farm" laws, and reducing inheritance taxes on farmers.

In contrast, the Stewardship Commission rounds out its wish list with funding for cover crops, manure transport and biofuel programs.

Their methodologies also have differed.

The Maryland Agricultural Commission's recommendations are based on information gathered by the Governor's Agricultural Forum, which Ehrlich asked the Department of Agriculture to create late last year. The forum advisory committee distributed surveys to 170 farmers and agricultural interests on subjects relating to agriculture. It then sponsored seven "listening sessions" this summer throughout the state, giving farmers a chance to weigh in.

Over the past several months, the committee has been refining its policy recommendations through focus groups and discussions.

The Stewardship Commission, in contrast, functioned more as a traditional task force. It welcomed presentations from the various stakeholders in the issues, such as the poultry industry, grain farmers and environmental groups, and crafted its recommendations based on those reports.

Mary Ellen Slayter writes for the Capital News Service.

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