Preserving life on the farm

New Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson must balance needs of farmers with protection of the bay

March 18, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

EDEN -- At a time when farmers are under fire as the single largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Roger Richardson's job is to stand up for them.

Richardson, 72, is Maryland's new agriculture secretary. He is a sixth-generation farmer and self-described conservative who has sometimes clashed with environmentalists. And he says, unequivocally, that the state has to respect the financial needs of farmers as it looks to them to do more for the bay.

"My first priority is to make sure that agriculture is viable, sustainable," he says. "We have to keep it profitable if we're going to keep farmers on the land, if young farmers are going to continue."

Like his recent predecessors as agriculture secretary, Richardson is an Eastern Shore native. Since 1767, his family has tilled a 60-acre farmstead where a plain family cemetery on a knoll is marked by a lone cedar.

In his youth, Richardson played semipro baseball and fast-pitch softball here. Sports helped foster lifelong friendships with fellow players, including chicken magnate Frank Perdue and former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Salisbury native.

He is a shrewd businessman who has amassed more than 3,000 acres of corn and soybean fields he farms with his grandson and brother-in law. The land forms a fertile triangle where Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties meet and makes him one of the region's largest private property owners.

But he eschews most of the perks and privileges of the $125,000-a-year secretary's job. When told he could have his pick from a fleet of department vehicles, he chose a worn Ford Explorer with 85,000 miles. He slapped on orange Maryland Agriculture vanity plates - MDA 1 - and headed for a 90-minute commute home on U.S. 50.

"I'm a farmer, and farmers are generally conservative by nature," Richardson said. "Anybody on a farm is used to driving older vehicles. Besides, after knee surgery, I need a little more room."

In a 2005 report, the government's Chesapeake Bay Program found that farming contributes 42 percent of the nitrogen pollution, 49 percent of the phosphorus and more than 60 percent of the sediment in the bay watershed. In Pennsylvania, a leading environmental group has gone to court to force farmers to comply with clean water standards for the Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water for the bay.

But in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is trying a different tack, backing programs that would subsidize farmers who take steps to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff. Despite a long-standing distrust between farmers and the environmental group, Richardson seems comfortable with the new sense of partnership.

"I think people are starting to realize that you can't save the bay if you push farmers out of business," he says.

He has testified in Annapolis on behalf of the foundation's proposal for a Chesapeake Bay Green Fund, a bill that would impose fees on new development and use some of the revenue to pay farmers to plant winter cover crops and buffers between fields and along waterways to reduce runoff.

Richardson has been a board member of the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, a nonprofit think tank that has paid for research aimed at environmental protection and keeping farms and forestry profitable. Former Gov. Harry Hughes, who is president and a founding member of the center, says Richardson's tenure on the board should serve him well as secretary.

"The whole purpose of the agro-ecology center was to get the environmentalists and farmers sitting down together. And that's the kind of thing a secretary of agriculture has to do," Hughes says.

Richardson shrugs off complaints about his past membership in the Worcester County Landowners Association. The property rights group campaigned in 2003 against legislation extending protections similar to the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas law to Worcester County's coastal bays. Some changes were made in response to the group's concerns, but environmentalists said they were satisfied with the outcome.

"With a little flexibility added to the bill, it was easy to get to a middle ground," Richardson says.

Jean Lynch, a former Worcester County Council member who clashed with the landowners association, said she is optimistic that Richardson can work with the environmental community. "Even when we disagreed, you could always talk to Roger," she says.

Douglas Green, a chicken grower from Somerset County who is a past president of Delmarva Poultry Inc., the industry's main trade group, says farmers need help to do more in the bay cleanup effort.

"There's tremendous pressure for development," Green says. "We can't keep farmland as open space unless we're making a living. There was some apprehension about [Gov. Martin] O'Malley, but people were glad to see Roger get this job. Roger is somebody farmers trust."

Gerald W. Winegrad, a former state senator who teaches environmental law at the University of Maryland School of Law, says state agriculture officials haven't done enough to regulate the industry.

"After 20 years, agriculture hasn't come close to meeting its portion of the reduction in phosphorus, nitrogen or sediment," Winegrad says. "Without very significant reductions by agriculture, you'll never restore the bay. Effectively, we've had no enforcement, and that doesn't work."

But Eileen McLellan, a former Chester Riverkeeper who now works as an environmental consultant, says a hard line might encourage more farmers to sell.

"Clearly, agriculture is the most significant contributor to bay pollution," McLellan says. "But many of us are concerned that if environmental policy gets too expensive, farmers won't be able to afford it. Then we lose farms to development, a far worse alternative."

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