Farm Bureau lawsuit hurts bay, farmers

January 20, 2011|By William C. Baker

A recent lawsuit filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a slap in the face to the Chesapeake Bay. It is a cynical ploy to reverse years of hard work by farmers who want to do their part to help achieve clean water. And it comes just as a renewed sense of optimism is starting to emerge among all parties that the bay and its rivers can be restored. Polarization and conflict have trumped good sense and collegiality once again.

Over the last year, the Farm Bureau has stood alone in its role as a massively funded national lobbying organization seemingly intent on frustrating progress toward clean water. It has consistently opposed every responsible effort to reduce pollution. And its rhetoric has been laced with hyperbole and startling inaccuracies.

The Farm Bureau seems intent on scaring family farmers into believing that the new Chesapeake Bay pollution diet will mean the end of agriculture in the region. Many farmers reject this view, but others are swayed, adding an unfounded worry to a list of real problems family farmers face trying to compete in a 21st century culture that often does not value their role. As a result, the Farm Bureau is driving a wedge between farmers and the communities in which they live and work.

Framing the issue as a battle between clean water and the farm economy is wrong. Study after study, common sense, and the experience of localities across the country prove that a clean environment and a healthy farm economy are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation regularly works with farmers across the watershed to promote conservation practices that protect water quality and also boost farm income, create jobs and stimulate local economies. Most farmers we talk to want to do their part for local rivers and the bay, not just because they are good stewards but because they are good farmers. For example, fencing cows out of streams can improve herd health and reduce veterinary bills, and rotational grazing can increase profits over traditional grain-fed beef and dairy operations. Actions that help achieve healthy rivers also help achieve healthy farms.

Unfortunately, the Farm Bureau just doesn't get it.

Many farmers privately tell us the Farm Bureau does not represent their interests. This is not surprising, given the entrenched relationship between the Farm Bureau and large corporate agribusinesses. Most farms in the Chesapeake region are small farms of less than 200 acres, a far cry from the economic giants of the Farm Bureau's industrial agribusiness partners.

Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman stated that the "… legal effort, led by AFBF, is essential to preserving the power of the states — not EPA — to decide whether and how to regulate farming practices." Here again, the Farm Bureau has its facts wrong. The states have worked to develop cleanup plans. The EPA's role, as the only government entity with a responsibility to assess the entire six-state bay system, is to see that the plans collectively meet the pollution reductions science says are necessary to achieve restoration. To their credit, the bay states have met that challenge, crafting state-specific plans based on the interests and opportunities in their particular jurisdictions. The Farm Bureau needs to get informed — it may find it likes what it sees.

But if it does not, it can work within the system. Over the next year, the states will be refining their plans, presenting another opportunity for stakeholder engagement by farmers, homeowners, developers, and, yes, even the Farm Bureau. Why doesn't it and its state affiliates work for solutions instead of putting up roadblocks? And it can work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to fight for more conservation dollars in the next federal Farm Bill for the region's farmers.

This litigation will be long and costly for all involved. By its unwillingness to join bay farmers, state agencies, nonprofits, local governments and the EPA in working to reduce pollution, the Farm Bureau is showing its commitment to the status quo: dirty water, human health impacts, and a fragmentation of the farm community.

It is time for the Farm Bureau to join the millions of others who want a change. As so many farmers and other businesspeople have shown, clean water will benefit all of us. We must work together, not engage in polarizing hyperbole, misstatements and obstructionist behavior.

William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His e-mail is

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