For Farmers Who Plant Trees, Pay To Increase

April 25, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

State and federal officials announced Friday that they are sweetening payments to Maryland farmers in hopes of taking cropland out of production to help clean the Chesapeake Bay.

Meeting on a farm near Westminster, Gov. Martin O'Malley and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed an agreement to funnel $198 million in federal funds to the state over the next 15 years. The money will allow the government to increase payments to farmers to plant trees rather than crops along streams. Funding would also pay for fences to keep livestock away from the water, and other steps to curb runoff polluted with fertilizer and pesticides.

"Farmers want to do the right thing, but they also need to feed their families," O'Malley said of the payments. He praised Vilsack and the Obama administration for freeing the federal funds, which had been approved by Congress last year as part of a new farm bill but held up by the Bush administration.

The funds are meant to enhance participation in a 12-year-old federal-state conservation program that has enticed Maryland farmers to set aside 74,000 acres of cropland and pasture for environmental purposes. Officials hope the added incentives will increase the set-aside to 100,000 acres. Under the program, about 8 million trees have been planted statewide along streams. Of the federal funds, $165 million is to go toward paying farmers rent for leaving cropland fallow for as much as 15 years. Another $33 million is earmarked to help farmers pay for conservation practices such as fencing and watering troughs for livestock to keep them out of streams.

Vilsack noted that Maryland was the first state to participate in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program when it began in 1997.

The officials kicked off the new phase by planting a flowering serviceberry tree on the farm of Richard Soper, who raises beef cattle and hay on 235 acres outside of Westminster. Last year, with government help, Soper planted 4,000 trees along Little Morgan Run, a stream that feeds into the Patapsco River.

Some farmers have been reluctant to stop growing crops or grazing livestock along stream banks, particularly as prices of corn and other grains have risen. Officials say they hope that increasing the government payments will sway more farmers to follow Soper's example.

"I believe that taking good farmland out of production to plant a few trees is absolutely a good thing," Soper said.

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