Barnyard Buddies: Maryland Farmers and Chesapeake Bay Foundation
The Chesapeake Bay Foundations newly declared truce with farmers deserves attention because both parties have a lot to say about the environment in our region.
In case you missed it, the foundation, by far Chesapeake Countrys best-funded advocacy group ($17.5 million budget this year), announced last week that it would no longer push for new regulations to control farm runoff and would not use the club of lawsuits to force farmers to comply with the law.
Instead, the foundation will work in a spirit of mutual trust to solve farm problems while investing its money on Washington lobbyists in hopes of getting farmers a bigger chunk of federal conservation spending.
We were of two minds listening to this declaration. On one hand, we see value in trying something different to bridge one of the deepest divides that exists in public policies: the gulf between farm groups and environmental advocates.
On nearly every issue involving natural resources, from pollution to property rights to endangered species, farm organizations and conservation groups come down light years away from one another.
When theres little hope for middle ground, solutions come only from the exercise of political muscle in the General Assembly and pressure often in court to enforce the law. Does it always have to be this way? Perhaps.
On the other hand, CBFs decree had a pollyannish ring, as if talking over tea about deadlocks will solve them.
Maybe we missed it, but we didnt read about any concessions by the Maryland Farm Bureau, only jokes by its president, Buddy Hance, about standing alongside these people.
At the federal and state level, the Farm Bureau has fought unremittingly against pro-environment rule and regulation. Recently, the Maryland affiliate has been fighting to protect the right to run confined animal feeding operations. Nationally, were about to see a huge battle to gut the Endangered Species Act, and the Farm Bureau is leading the charge.
Like many other advocacy groups, the foundation has its eye on conservation monies in the Farm Bill. Heres what this is about: Farm subsidies that have roots in the Depression-era have been averaging $15 billion annually, even in years of bumper crops. But two-thirds of farmers get none of this money (vegetable and fruit farmers, for instance), and 10 percent of landowners get nearly three-fourths of it.
President George W. Bush is among those who have pronounced this system as wasteful and unsustainable, but groups like the Farm Bureau use their clout in Congress to keep the money flowing.
Farm subsidies make a mockery out of free trade as well. Thats because they encourage overproduction, which drives down commodity prices and makes it impossible for farmers in developing countries to compete in world markets.
Under pressure at home and abroad, Congress may be forced to cut certain subsidies, like export loans, in the 2007 Farm Bill. And conservation groups believe that they can persuade lawmakers to transfer those payments to pro-conservation spending like installing buffers to prevent farm runoff.
Thats two years away. Amid the feel-good rhetoric, lets hope that Marylands premier advocacy group hasnt unilaterally disarmed for uncertain rewards well into the future.