ANNAPOLIS – First they announced they were “just dating.”
Then the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began lobbying the General Assembly on behalf of Maryland’s farmers, asking for $100 million a year to support programs such as cover crops, agriculture education and technical assistance, and land preservation.
Now, the relationship is getting downright serious, as environmentalists and farmers, traditional foes, are teaming up to push for measures that will benefit both.
“In order to save the bay, we have to save the farmer,” Kim Coble, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said at a news conference in September announcing the results of the foundation’s study on the health of agriculture in the BayÕs watershed. Maryland Farm Bureau President Earl “Buddy” Hance joined Coble for the conference at the foundation’s Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro.
It’s quite a change from just a few years ago, when the state’s farmers and environmentalists were at odds over whose fault it was that the Chesapeake Bay was in such sorry condition and who was responsible for the cleanup.
Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade association for the chicken industry, greeted the shift as good news. “We welcome the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s help in our efforts to preserve agriculture in Maryland,” he said.
But as much as they officially welcome their new partners, many farmers are still a bit skeptical about the turnaround, struggling to get past the wounds inflicted in the Pfiesteria scare in 1997. High nitrogen levels from runoff are believed to have contributed to a bloom of the microorganism, leading to fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Farmers were blamed for most of the problem.
“Farmers in general resent the implication that we’re not good stewards of the land,” said David Shaw, who owns a small organic produce farm in Howard County.
Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said the farmers she represents are “cautiously optimistic” about the new alliance. “There’s not as much trust as there could be,” she said, adding that some of her farmers refer to environmental groups as “cash by fear” operations, more concerned with fundraising efforts than solving problems.
“Farmers want an understanding of the facts because they’re not afraid of them,” Hoot said. “It’s certainly not the farmer’s goal to waste fertilizer.”
Hoot credits the change in attitude to new leadership at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In particular she praised Coble, who became the group’s Maryland executive director in July 2003. “We seem to be dealing with people who are looking for solutions, not problems,” Hoot said.
Coble said the change goes beyond her work, though, and speaks to a fundamental shift for the group. “If you were to talk to my counterparts in Pennsylvania and Virginia, you’d hear the same thing,” she said. “The change is based on really looking at our mission and asking some tough questions.”
Those questions brought them to one concern they share with the state’s farmers: land. Development pressure is the biggest threat to agriculture and the environment, said Delegate J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties.
“We know where the problem is – land is being bought up for housing,” said Jennings, who serves on the Agricultural Stewardship Commission, an advisory board created by the General Assembly in April to recommend ways to protect the bay from harmful effects of farming without hurting the farmers themselves. “Other workers can be put anywhere; farmers need the land.”
James Steele, Carroll County Farm Bureau president, said the land preservation issues are a natural point of alliance for the two groups. “Our goals have always been the same,” whether they knew it or not, he said. “Farms hold water and nutrients better than asphalt.”
“You never see a subdivision being leveled to be made into a horse farm,” said Steele, who owns a 640 acre horse farm.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is not the only environmental organization that is hoping to improve its relationships with farmers. Andrew Fellows, Chesapeake program director for Clean Water Action, said his group is also working to be more supportive of agriculture.
Fellows said in many cases, the problem lies in how the requests of farmers are framed. “They’re happy to do things,” he said. “They just don’t want to be told to do it.”
Much of the work needed now is building bridges, Fellows said. “Farmers love to swim and fish, too.”
But many farmers and their advocates say they are still put off by what they see as an unfair proportion of blame being delivered at their barn doors.
“It’s a lot easier to get farmers to change than the general public,” Hoot said. “If you put a cover crop on every acre, but everyone’s still driving around in SUVs and putting fertilizer on their lawns, you’re still in trouble.”
“A lot of bad blood came from the Pfisteria scare in 90s,” Jennings said. “A lot of parties contribute to the problem, but only one was held accountable.”
Jeffrey Griffith, president of the Anne Arundel County Farm Bureau, said a lot of that bad publicity was based on misconceptions. “People didn’t really stop to think” before blaming farmers, he said. “It would have been nice if it could have happened 10 years ago,” Hoot said. “Of course, that’s still better than waiting 10 more.”