Farmers reap goodwill in session


April 16, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Farmers seem to have found some new friends in Annapolis.

"I can't remember farmers being treated as good by the General Assembly as they were this year," said Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley, who served in the legislature for more than a decade before taking his present job for the first time in 1994.

"It was a year when the governor, the General Assembly and even the environmentalists seemed to recognize the need for preserving farmland and protecting farmers," Riley said. "We had a lot of cooperation from the environmentalists, primarily the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"The environmentalists seemed to wake up and see that agriculture is the best way to preserve land, keep our open spaces and clean up the bay," he said. "All in all, it was a good year for agriculture."

Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, a trade association representing 25,000 farm families, agreed. "Things really went well this year. It was one of the few years that we didn't feel that we were on the defensive. It was a big change from recent years when it seemed like farmers were being blamed for all the state's problems."

There were some major wins for farmers during the 90-day legislative session that ended Monday night, and a few disappointments.

On the plus side, Riley pointed to the Agriculture Stewardship Act - a bill written by House and Senate leaders to help farmers while protecting the Chesapeake Bay from pollution - for major increases in funding for farm programs.

"There were more dollars for cover crops," he said. "There were more dollars for soil conservation and more dollars for the chicken manure transport program."

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Agricultural Stewardship Act "provides an important foundation to support farmers and help them implement programs that are good for the bay."

Coble has been working to improve relations between the foundation and farm organizations since taking her post in 2003.

"Given a choice between an acre of farmland and an acre of residential development, the best thing for the bay is farmland, without a doubt," she said.

Money for farm programs seemed to be more plentiful this year.

Concerning a program near and dear to the hearts of many farmers, Riley said the legislature proposed reopening the University of Maryland's soil testing laboratory, with funds for it to be included in next year's budget.

The popular program was eliminated in 2003 as the university struggled with budget problems.

The governor's budget for next year includes $8.5 million for cover crops, up from $5 million in the current budget. Farmers plant cover crops, usually wheat or barley in the fall, to draw leftover nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil and prevent them from making their way into streams or rivers.

Spending for farmland preservation jumped 110 percent to $89.5 million, including state, federal and county funds.

"We already have the best land preservation program in the country, and this is really going to help those efforts," said Riley.

Lawmakers increased the spending on a program to transport chicken manure from areas of the Eastern Shore where it is abundant to other parts of the state where it can be safely spread over fields.

They provided $750,000 for the manure transport program, up from $200,000 for the current year. "This was particularly important," Connelly said, "because the poultry companies in the state match these funds on a dollar-to-dollar basis."

State winemakers were happy with a bill passed during the final hours of the session that allows most of them to sell their products directly to restaurants and retailers.

"We were thrilled," said Rose Fiore, who runs Fiore Winery in northern Harford County. "It passed with only about 75 minutes left in the session."

Under the bill, wineries that produce less than 27,500 gallons a year would be able to obtain a limited wholesaler's license. "Nobody can sell a wine better than its maker," said Fiore. "It's the love of the craft."

Other approved farm-related legislation includes:

The appointment of an agricultural ombudsman at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to help farmers deal with the regulatory agency.

Putting more muscle in the state's right-to-farm law by requiring that disputes between farmers and neighbors be presented to a mediation board before they go into the court system.

"Hopefully, disputes will be solved in mediation," said Connelly. "It could save a lot of money if the lawyers and the courts are not involved."

A bill to voluntarily establish priority preservation areas. These are regions to be designated for farmland preservation.

Money to hire additional workers at soil conservation district offices throughout the state that help farmers with the planning and financing of programs to protect the environment.

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