Chesapeake Bay could benefit from increase in federal farm production payments in region


January 07, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

Maryland farmers are not getting their fair share of the money that the federal government hands out each year in farm production payments.

That's a major complaint of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which says that if bay region growers received as much funding as their Corn Belt counterparts, the bay could be a lot cleaner.

An analysis by the environmental group shows that for every dollar of food produced in Maryland, farmers receive 4.8 cents in federal support money. This is well below the national average of 9 cents per state. Other states fare better. Farmers in North Dakota receive an average of 22 cents in federal payments.

The payment figures are based on the foundation's analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm-support payment data for 2000 to 2005.

In terms of federal funding for farms, Maryland was in the middle of bay region states.

While Virginia farmers received an average payment of 6.4 cents over the six-year period, those in Pennsylvania were paid 3 cents.

"The federal support system is not fair," said Michael Heller, head of the foundation's Clagett demonstration farm near Upper Marlboro. He also leads the group's efforts to attract federal funding to improve bay water quality.

It becomes more difficult for Maryland farmers to help improve the water quality of the bay and stay economically viable, Heller said.

Most of the money goes to states in the Midwest and other parts of the country that grow "program" crops such as cotton, rice, sugar, corn, soybeans and wheat, Heller said, a contrast to the diversity of farming in Maryland.

"Because agriculture is so diversified in Maryland - we grow cattle, vegetables and chickens - we don't get nearly as much money as the big corn production states like Iowa or South Dakota," he said. "One county in Iowa will grow more corn than we grow in the entire state."

Noting studies showing that the most cost-effective way to reduce nutrient pollution of the bay is to boost farm conservation efforts, Heller said Maryland farmers could do more if the federal government contributed more money for such conservation initiatives.

Farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia could benefit even more than Maryland from increased government funding to pay for cover crops, he said.

Cover crops - typically wheat, barley or rye - are planted after farmers harvest their main crops, usually corn or soybeans. As the cover crop grows through the winter, it draws excess nutrients from the ground, preventing them from entering waterways.

Farmers also could use more help to pay for manure storage facilities. Instead of spreading manure on their fields when it benefits crops the most, some farmers must spread it during winter months when the crops don't need it and when nutrients wash off into the bay, he said.

More funding also would encourage more farmers to plant buffer strips of trees or grasses along waterfront property to help control pollution.

Some other East Coast states receiving small slices of the federal farm spending pie include New York with 4.1 cents of funding for each dollar of farm production; Delaware, 2.5 cents; and West Virginia, 3.1 cents.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is working with other environmental organizations to have a bill introduced this year that would require Congress to direct more federal farm spending to states in the bay region.

Maryland farmers could gain an additional $65 million a year to spend on conservation efforts, Heller said.

"Regional equity could be fairly addressed by increasingly tying federal [funding] support to conservation benefits that farms provide, rather than to program crops," he said. "This would more evenly distribute federal support to farms across the nation."

Since 1950, the bay region has lost nearly 75 percent of its farms as the rapid growth of homes and malls replaces what was once productive farmland.

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