WASHINGTON – A project aimed at using existing federal programs to keep farming viable, while preserving the environment, is being touted by Maryland agriculture officials in the fight against the onslaught of farmland development.
But where bureaucrats see hope, some farmers see cause for concern. They worry that the Delmarva Conservation Corridor project will just mean more government intervention and more inducements to take farmland out of production in the name of conservation.
Although the program has a lot of potential, the director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau is wary.
“It’s an open idea out there that hasn’t been formed,” Valerie Connelly said.
Not formed may be putting it mildly. The only thing that appears to be certain is that participation in the program will be voluntary.
There are no boundaries to the Delmarva Conservation Corridor, which could encompass the whole peninsula. Beyond the goals of preserving farmland and protecting the environment, there is no framework: It could include some or all of 32 government programs, from land conservation to biomass energy grants, or it could call for new programs.
“There’s a lot of confusion at this moment and a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of concern,” about the proposal, said John Hall, director of the Kent County agricultural extension.
Maryland officials have scheduled two public meetings on the project this week, from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at Washington College and Tuesday at Salisbury University. Virginia and Delaware officials are expected at both meetings and are also holding their own forums, said Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary for Maryland’s Office Resource Conservation.
Hall said he hoped that the public forums would ease farmers’ worries. But that did not appear to be the case at the first forum in Easton last week.
At that meeting, Mike Milke said that farmers like him mainly fear two things — development and “paradoxical government programs” like the Conservation Reserve and Conservation Reserve Enhancement programs that preserve farmland by taking it out of production.
Both programs retire land in exchange for an annual rental payment that is worth more than if the land had been tilled. Since many farmers rent farmland, however, they do not receive the financial benefits of land retirement.
The retirement programs simply “take it (land) away and take it away,” leaving little for farmers, Milke said. Instead of helping farmers, it hurts them by providing less acreage for the same amount of crops.
“Easements, things like that will help us more,” Milke said.
Talbot County landowner Tom Hughes agreed with Milke that “the economics of the situation are really tenuous right now” for farmers. But he said land retirements are not as threatening as farmers think.
Conservation Reserve pays landowners to leave vegetative buffer strips along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, land that is already choked with weeds and trees and is largely unproductive, Hughes said. Conservation Reserve Enhancement only retires land where the soil is clay-like and impermeable.
“The yield is much less in these areas than in the middle of the field,” Hughes said, meaning farmers are only losing undesirable land. He said he has about 25 acres enrolled in these programs and he has never had a problem with them.
What farmers really need is a break from the inheritance tax, Hughes said. Because the development value of farmland is often more than farmers have on hand, they may be forced to sell off chunks of property to pay the Internal Revenue Service, he said.
Perpetual conservation easements are also a good idea, but the program is perennially under-funded, Hughes said.
Hughes said that in order for the Conservation Corridor to work, the program needs one office that has all the information in one place for farmers. Currently, state and federal programs are spread out and farmers have “to find which office holds which one.”
Connelly said the farm bureau wants the plan to focus on preserving farming instead of taking farmland out of production. It should also encourage farmers to create “value-added production facilities,” such as ethanol plants that could raise the value of certain crops.
For now, the bureau is waiting to see the end results and encouraging its 14,000 members to attend and participate in the forums on the corridor.
Powell said the Conservation Corridor plan is being pulled together by state officials and a steering committee of local officials, farming, forestry and environmental interests. Ideas like those submitted at last week’s forum are what the state is looking for, he said.
“The public participation piece of this is critical,” he said.
Powell said the three states may decide to submit a joint proposal for the entire peninsula. A final draft of the plan is expected to be presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture by the middle of next year.