WASHINGTON – Maryland farmers and environmentalists, two groups often perceived as adversaries, are in fact “natural allies” who should be working together, according to a new study by a university team of anthropologists.
The report, which is scheduled to be published this summer, says Eastern Shore farmers have felt unfairly branded as polluters who lack concern for the environment.
In fact, farmers see themselves as “the ‘real’ environmentalists because they live with nature every day and depend on it to make a living,” the report says. It says the two groups share many of the same values.
Leaders on both sides said they were not surprised by the findings. They know their constituencies agree on 80 percent and disagree on 20 percent of issues involving agriculture and the environment.
“But that 20 percent is huge,” said Stephen Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. “I can tell you the differences are in the approach to things,” such as whether nutrient-management techniques should be voluntary, as farmers would prefer.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker blamed “extremists” on both sides for polarizing the two groups to further their own agendas.
“The vast majority of environmentalists and the vast majority of farmers believe they’re on the same side,” he said.
The main point is that “there’s a farmer environmentalism in the area of the Eastern Shore that should be tapped,” said Michael Paolisso, lead researcher for the University of Maryland study. “We want to use our research to bring groups together so that they can talk to each other based on shared values.”
The report comes from the first phase of a $300,000 applied anthropology study at the University of Maryland, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. It will be published this summer in Human Organization, a professional journal.
The study began in the wake of the pfiesteria scare, when nutrients in farm runoff were linked to toxic algae blooms in some state rivers. Chicken manure, widely used as fertilizer on the Eastern Shore, was suspected of contributing significantly to the problem and, as a result, mandatory nutrient management regulations are being developed that will go into effect for all Maryland farmers in 2005.
Using a combination of interviews and questionnaires, researchers gathered data from more than three dozen farmers and two dozen environmental professionals. They also observed meetings — some with just farmers and others with a mix of farmers, environmentalists, government officials and citizens — to collect additional information.
The data show that, overall, farmers and environmental professionals share an understanding of “the broad parameters of issues, processes, causes and consequences of pfiesteria,” the report says. But the “sense of urgency surrounding pfiesteria limited the opportunities for farmers and other stakeholders to have extensive dialogues on the problem.”
A couple of efforts to smooth communications between farmers and environmentalists are already under way.
In January, Gov. Parris Glendening signed an agreement creating the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology Inc., a nonprofit corporation that aims to promote profitable farming and a healthy environment. The board of directors includes Baker and Weber.
The Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club has also formed a working group with farmers that is trying to block large, “industrial” farming operations, said Chris Bedford, the group’s chairman. It is those operations that threaten the existence of small, family-owned farms, whose ecological diversity is good for the environment, he said.