The frustration felt by local farmers over their treatment by the General Assembly is understandable. It seems that every year, bills are filed that would lead to substantial changes in the Eastern Shore’s top industry. Incremental changes, we can understand, and likely our farmers can, too.
Delegate Jay Jacobs (R-Kent), who also represents Cecil County as part of District 36, offered a suggestion at this year’s Kent County Farm Bureau banquet held late last month. Any lawmaker whose home county is not in at least 51 percent agriculture should not be allowed to file a bill regulating farmers. The real point Jacobs was making was about who is proposing new agriculture regulations. It seems the most controversial bills are coming from lawmakers in urban counties, well removed from actual producers.
“They don’t have a clue what you do. They’ve never stepped on a poultry farm. They’ve never stepped on a dairy farm. And yet, they want to put in legislation that will have a huge impact (on farmers),” Jacobs told the producers at the March 26 banquet.
We appreciate the efforts of Joe Bartenfelder, Maryland’s secretary of agriculture, since he took office last year. A farmer himself, Bartenfelder is working to educate lawmakers and citizens about the realities of farming. He speaks with local and federal officials as well, listening to issues and pushing the state’s priorities.
Bartenfelder previously described this year’s most controversial agriculture-related bill, aimed at poultry litter, as “kind of like a punch in the gut.” The bill seeks to make poultry companies like Perdue responsible for transporting excess chicken manure from farms.
After years of debate, Maryland launched a new set of nutrient management regulations for farms last year. They limit the amount of phosphorus — a nutrient found in chicken litter — that farmers can spread on fields as fertilizer. Bartenfelder, speaking at the farm bureau banquet, said the regulations include a cost-share program helping producers transport excess chicken litter from their farms. He said the new proposal currently in the General Assembly would do away with that program.
Citizens have taken a renewed interest in where their food comes from and how it is produced. There are countless books and documentaries providing consumers with a detailed look at the nation’s food and agriculture industry. Some of the practices we are learning more and more about are cause for concern.
Pile on top of that the sensitivity of the Shore’s ecosystem and the Chesapeake Bay and it is no wonder we see bills every year in the General Assembly aimed at agriculture.
Our farmers are making great strides and changing their practices to better the environment and local waterways. They deserve our appreciation for that. They are not off the hook, though, for finding better and more efficient ways to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution.
We also need to recognize that there is no valve to halt pollution completely, unless, that is, agriculture on the Shore is shut down. But then, that will open the door to massive residential development, which brings with it its own forms of pollution that are much more difficult to address.
Lawmakers also must realize that agriculture regulations trickle down to those who are not producers. Several years ago, a poultry processing plant in Cordova was slated to close. Our lawmakers won the fight to keep it open and maintain jobs. Citing continued instability in state regulations, the company announced earlier this year that it will close the plant and relocate operations to Delaware. That impacts 300 employees who may not be able to commute that far for work.
Not all new farm regulations are bad, nor do we think those proposing them are doing so with malicious intent. There is a lot at stake including the environment and the economy.
Meanwhile, the annual debates and accompanying publicity stunts continue to leave top employers concerned about the viability of maintaining their presence in Maryland, which is not good.
Our hope is that Bartenfelder and the Maryland Department of Agriculture continue on their campaigns to educate people more and more about farming, while producers continue to be open to new methods of environmental protections.