Legal fight emerges over rights to grazing, hay harvest


July 20, 2008|By TED SHELSBY

In a decision that could impact Maryland farmers down the road, a federal judge in Seattle recently issued a temporary injunction that halts cattle grazing and the harvesting of hay from land in a federal conservation program.

The legal battle stems from a decision by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer in May to allow cattle and other livestock to graze on 24 million acres of land enrolled in the government's Conservation Reserve Program. He also allowed grass on the land to be harvested as hay.

Commonly referred to by agriculture officials and farmers as CRP, the federal program started in 1985 allows landowners to idle environmentally sensitive land for conservation.

Schafer's move was designed to help livestock farmers suffering from high crop prices and tight food supplies. The average price of hay has jumped nearly 23 percent this year to $161 a ton, according the USDA's crop reporting service. Hay prices have more than doubled in the past three years.

Prices of other crops, including corn and soybeans, have also advanced to record or near record levels in recent months.

The higher prices are blamed on the increased use of corn to produce ethanol as a gasoline extender, and widespread flooding in the Midwest. Pork farmers are complaining that the high cost of feed is resulting in a loss on each pig going to market.

Schafer said his decision would make available up to 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion.

The secretary stipulated that the eligible land may not be hayed or grazed until after the end of the primary nesting season for grass nesting birds.

The move was applauded by the beef, poultry, pork, grain and feed industry as a positive step addressing their needs.

Federal District Judge John C. Coughenour's recent decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in Washington state, charging that the USDA's action jeopardized certain birds. They sought a larger environmental impact study before changing the use of the land.

According to Kerry Humphrey, a spokesperson for the USDA, there are 83,438 acres of Maryland farmland on 3,574 farms, enrolled in the CRP program.

"Maryland farmers will not be affected by the program until after Aug. 15," Humphrey said. "The bird nesting season there goes from April 15 to Aug. 15. Farmers can sign up for the program now, but they will need to wait until the end of the bird nesting season."

Nationwide, landowners received about $1.9 billion in CRP payments last year. The program pays a national average of about $50 an acre.

In a related development, Schafer announced last week that the government would allow livestock to graze on thousands of CRP acres in 16 states because of flooding.

The release permits grazing only in counties recently designated as Presidential Disaster Areas, or contiguous counties.

"Major flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries came at one of the worst times for agriculture," Schafer said. "Floodwaters inundated thousands of acres that cannot be salvaged for production this growing season, and it happened at a time of record crop, food and fuel prices.

"Our CRP land is vital to the balance we promote at USDA between production and preservation. I commit this resource, knowing that we must redouble our conservation efforts at every future opportunity."

In Maryland, the order applies only to farms in Washington County.

To be approved, CRP participants must write their county Farm Service Agency office and obtain a modified conservation plan. They need approval before grazing is permitted.

Participants will also experience a 25 percent reduction in their CRP rental payments.

The vast majority of the land included in this program is in Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska and Illinois. These are major Corn Belt states that suffered the greatest from severe flooding this spring.

Cultivating leaders

The LEAD Maryland Foundation Inc., a program devoted to developing leaders to work on agricultural and natural resources issues and in rural communities, is accepting applications for its next class of fellows.

The classes are made up of 20 to 25 fellows in each two-year program. Participants increase their skills, confidence and knowledge for the benefit of their industries and the communities in which they live and work.

To date, 114 fellows have completed the program.

"LEAD has proven to be a very successful program in the 10 years since it was established," said Earl F. Hance, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a LEAD board member.

"During the program, fellows gain a deep understanding of agricultural, natural resource and community issues," he said. "Many of the graduates have gone on to be effective advocates for the betterment of these communities through their careers and personal lives."

The next LEAD class will complete a series of multi-day seminars held throughout Maryland and a study tour in Washington, D.C.

Fellows will also participate in an international study tour.

The curriculum looks into issues affecting rural economies and quality of life.

The international study tour has taken previous classes to Belgium, Brazil, China, Cuba, Estonia and Finland.

"LEAD Maryland helps to bring out the leadership skills that we have inside us," said Christopher E. Black, a third-generation Frederick County farmer and a fellow in the current class.

He said the program gave him the opportunity to learn a great deal about many issues affecting agriculture.

Completed applications and required references are due to the LEAD office by Oct. 1. Applications are available through the Web site:

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