WASHINGTON – A Maryland farm group is wary of legislation that would shift $2 billion from traditional crop subsidy payments into voluntary conservation programs.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, insists his proposal would not hurt the small farmers who make up the majority of Maryland farms, but would give them a chance to be rewarded for conservation efforts.
But the Maryland Farm Bureau said it is opposed to the shift, which they fear could jeopardize the safety nets that have helped farmers through difficult years.
“It would have a detrimental impact on the farmers of Maryland if they were to decrease that (subsidy) portion of the farm bill,” said Valerie Connelly, the bureau’s director of government relations.
The proposal by Gilchrest and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., could come to the floor of the House as early as this week, when the farm bill is reported out by the House Agriculture Committee.
The two hope to replace the farm bill’s conservation section with legislation based on Kind’s Working Lands Stewardship Act. That bill has garnered 132 cosponsors since its introduction in June, including Reps. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, and Connie Morella, R-Bethesda,
In a New York Times column, Gilchrest and Kind said increasing funds for voluntary conservation projects would benefit small and mid-size farmers by giving them incentives to practice conservation and environmentally friendly farming in high-risk areas.
“This lets us assist the family farmers who have lost ground under the current system, while we use taxpayer dollars more sensibly to protect natural resources and environmental quality,” they said in the column.
Gilchrest said the amendment would give Maryland farmers an opportunity they do not always have now.
“Maryland farmers year after year after year are on a waiting list for conservation funds because we just run out of money,” Gilchrest said.
At the same time, he said, farmers here do not have to fear a loss of crop subsidy payments.
“Eighty percent of the farmers across the country will not be affected,” Gilchrest said. “The average farm in Maryland is a small, family-owned operation, and this is not going to affect them.”
But Connelly said stringent requirements for getting assistance would do more economic harm than good to farmers, including those in Maryland.
“It’s those kind of safety payments that have really kept the farmers afloat throughout the past few years,” she said. “They’ll have to jump through hoops in order to get (conservation money).”
The farm bill currently includes an 80 percent increase in conservation incentive funds, but Gilchrest said this is not enough to preserve fragile ecosystems. He and Kind would roughly double that amount with their amendment.
Environmental groups say the incentives in the Gilchrest-Kind plan should keep Maryland farms economically viable, which in turn keeps farmers from having to sell their land to developers.
Groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say conservation and proper management of farmland in Maryland is important because the biggest source of pollution to the bay is nutrient runoff from farmland.
“The farm bill has become a very important part of conservation and the effort to restore the bay,” said Bill Street, the bay foundation’s director of watershed restoration. The amendment would “really devote the resources necessary to address these issues.”
Agriculture Committee staffers, pointing to the 80 percent increase in conservation funding already included in the bill, said it has a “broad base of support . . . among producers, who are interested in continued flexibility and a safety net, and conservationists.”
But Gilchrest is optimistic about the chances for his amendment.
“We have a better than 50-50 chance to get it passed if it comes up this week,” he said. “If it comes up a week later, our chances go up quite a bit” because supporters would have more time to garner additional support.