ANNAPOLIS-Maryland Agricultural Commission, meet the Agricultural Stewardship Commission.
One group answers to the governor, the other to the Senate president and House speaker. Both are planning to make recommendations for the upcoming legislative session on how to best preserve farming in Maryland, and not necessarily the same ones.
Not that the agriculture community is complaining. “We’re just delighted that we’ve got that much interest in farming now,” said Lewis R. Riley, secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The Maryland Agricultural Commission is a 24-member group appointed by the governor as an advisory body to the secretary of agriculture. Its members include representatives from all major farming industries in Maryland, as well as the dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The governor’s commission presented its preliminary recommendations Tuesday at the Maryland Farm Bureau’s annual convention in Ocean City. Its final report is due in February.
The Agricultural Stewardship Commission came on the heels of that forum and was created in April 2005, charged with coming up with draft legislation relating to farming practices, particularly farm wastes, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Its focus has since broadened to include farm preservation, as well.
Its members, who were appointed by the Senate president and the House speaker, include Kim L. Coble, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Earl “Buddy” Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, as well as state delegates and senators. The group held its final working meeting Wednesday in Annapolis, and it plans to offer draft legislation in the General Assembly’s next session.
“I think the work of the two groups is going to complement each other,” said Delegate J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, a member of the Stewardship Commission. “The governor definitely spearheaded the issue, but both branches are willing to approach the issue and work hard to resolve these issues.”
Both groups seem to be in agreement on the importance of land-use issues. The Agricultural Commission’s report will likely recommend that lawmakers put money into MARBIDCO, a program designed to help young farmers buy land. The program was created earlier this year but has not been funded. The Stewardship Commission also included backing for the program, to the tune of at least $5 million in its first year, among its draft policy recommendations released at Wednesday’s meeting.
Both groups are also recommending greater funding for agriculture research at the University of Maryland, and increased funding for cooperative extension services.
But their work has not dove-tailed entirely, officials say.
The governor’s group isn’t as much concerned with environmental issues, said Doug Scott, assistant secretary for resource conservation for the Department of Agriculture. Scott has regularly attended the meetings of both groups over the past few months. More important to their agency, both Scott and Riley, said is preserving farm profitability.
“The greatest land preservation program in the world is a good farm operation,” Riley said.
That tilt is seen clearly in the draft recommendations it shared with farmers on Tuesday, which were focused on investing in research into farming techniques, marketing Maryland farmers’ products, helping young farmers buy land, strengthening “right to farm” laws, and reducing inheritance taxes on farmers.
In contrast, the Stewardship Commission rounds out its wish list with funding for cover crops, manure transport and biofuel programs.
If their focuses have differed, so have their methodologies.
The Maryland Agricultural Commission’s recommendations are based on information gathered by the Governor’s Agricultural Forum, which Ehrlich asked the Department of Agriculture to create in late 2004. The forum advisory committee distributed surveys to 170 farmers and agricultural interests for their input on a variety of subjects relating to agriculture. It then sponsored seven “listening sessions” this summer throughout the state, giving farmers a chance to weigh in.
Over the past several months, the committee has been refining its policy recommendations through focus groups and discussions.
The Stewardship Commission, in contrast, functioned more as a traditional task force. It welcomed presentations from the various stakeholders in the issues, such as the poultry industry, grain farmers, and environmental groups, and crafted its recommendations based on those reports.
The two groups have not worked entirely independently. For instance, at the Sept. 13 meeting of the Agricultural Stewardship Commission, Mark P. Whalen of the Maryland Agricultural Commission shared the results of the governor’s listening sessions with the legislators, who were eager to hear what the farmers had to say.
After that meeting, Delegate Maggie L. McIntosh, D-Baltimore, one of four co-chairs for the commission, emphasized the non-punitive approach her commission was hoping to take in making farming more environmentally friendly. “We want carrots, no sticks,” she said. It’s a sentiment shared by Department of Agriculture officials. “My hope is that the two groups can come together,” Riley said. –