Irreconcilable differences? (Editorial)

(Feb. 16, 2016) Ten years ago, then-president of the Maryland Farm Bureau Earl “Buddy” Hance joined William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, at a news conference releasing a CBF report on the state of agriculture in the Bay watershed.
The overarching message from the report was farmers, under mounting development pressure and global market competition, need more help to implement the conservation practices that would reduce excess nutrients and sediment leaving farmland.
Hands down, a well-managed farm beats a subdivision when it comes to protecting the Bay and its tributaries, was the rallying cry.
“Farmers are good stewards of the land,” Baker said during the 2005 news conference. “Clearly additional funds are needed.”
After years of being at odds over water quality issues, having the representatives share a podium was a small but significant step in reaching common ground.
“We’re just dating,” Hance said, tempering the notion of both groups working together. “We’re not going steady. We’re just dating.”
Much was made of the relationship metaphor in the press and the relationship in general was welcomed by farmers, albeit cautiously, as communication grew. At the Farm Bureau’s state convention at the end of 2006, then director of CBF’s Maryland office, Kim Coble, addressed the hundreds of farmers gathered and got a standing ovation.
“We are done finger pointing,” Coble said. “The solutions lie with us and they can only be achieved if we work together. Farming is in a precarious position. We have to keep farming profitable and productive.”
In the meantime, the groups, somewhat emblematic of the industries they represent, didn’t always see eye-to-eye, falling on opposite sides of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s legal challenge of the Bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load plan and the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed expansion of the Waters of the State rule.
But they continued to join together in the push for more conservation funding. When the latest Farm Bill designated $5.3 million for water quality projects, including a program just for farmers in the Bay region, Baker commended federal lawmakers for the funding.
“This additional funding, along with the matching funding and technical assistance by state governments and conservation organizations, is among the important steps needed to reduce pollution from agriculture,” he said in January 2015.
But something seems to have changed.
Nestled in a proposed law in Maryland called the “Poultry Litter Management Act” supported by the CBF is language that “public funds may not be used to pay for the transportation of manure.”
If passed, the law would essentially end the state transport program for poultry litter, which is about 30-percent funded by poultry companies on Delmarva.
Along with paying into the program, Perdue Farms’ AgriRecycle facility has converted nearly a million tons of poultry litter to pelletized fertilizer.
Built in 2001, the facility still operates at a loss for Perdue and it accepts litter from any contract grower on Delmarva at no charge.
Funding in the transport program is adequate for the moment, state officials say, but with more strict regulations through use of the Phosphorus Management Tool coming, they expect a greater need for the program to move poultry litter and animal manure.
Too bad, say the bill and its advocates, who point the finger at the poultry companies for assuming the liability and cost of the litter and decide who can keep it on their farms.
Worse then taking away a valuable revenue stream from farmers who sell their litter, the bill, if passed, would pave the way for lawsuits against chicken companies over how litter is handled, which some in agriculture speculate as the bill’s ultimate goal.
After a proposed “Chicken Tax” surfaced in the state legislature, it’s not surprising to see another attempt at crippling Delmarva’s poultry industry. It likely won’t be the last.
It is surprising, and unfortunate, that after years of pushing for more help for farmers to do what’s best for the Bay, CBF signs on to a bill that would take it away.