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Old Foes Attempt Detente to Save the Bay

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, offered an olive branch to farmers after a report by his group showed the precarious health of the region's farms.
William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, offered an olive branch to farmers after a report by his group showed the precarious health of the region's farms. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Environmentalists committed to preserving the Chesapeake Bay said yesterday that they were embarking on a new relationship with the region's farmers in a cooperative effort to protect the watershed.

After a long and stormy relationship in which environmentalists often pursued stricter pollution controls on agriculture and farmers griped that they were bearing the cost of keeping the bay clean, William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said a new report on the precarious health of the region's farms had persuaded the groups to collaborate in areas of mutual interest -- such as increased federal agricultural and conservation funding for the three bay states: Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Not so fast, said Earl "Buddy" Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

"We're just dating right now," Hance said, standing at Baker's side in a joint news conference at the bay foundation's Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro. "We're not going steady. We're just dating."

Agriculture, particularly the runoff of animal waste and fertilizers, represents a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Faced with global competition, rising costs for gas and machinery, and generally stagnant commodity prices, farmers often say they cannot afford new antipollution initiatives. As suburban sprawl drives up land prices and makes farming more difficult, many sell out to developers. And that, Baker said, is even worse for the bay and the environment.

"Well-managed farmland is some of the best land use we have," Baker said.

His organization's report, unveiled at the news conference, illustrates the difficulties farmers face. "Vital Signs: Assessing the State of Chesapeake Agriculture in 2005," found that 10 of the 12 indicators of the health of the region's farms were "weak" or "unhealthy." The report noted progress in using fertilizers more efficiently and limiting soil erosion but found bad news just about everywhere else.

For example, more than 90,000 acres of farmland are lost every year to sprawl in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the report found. The number of farms in the bay states has dropped by nearly 75 percent in the past 50 years -- although most of the decline occurred before 1975 and the figure has since stabilized.

The report also found that the farmer's share of every food dollar has continued to shrink, with more and more money being stripped out by middlemen such as food processors, distributors and retailers. In 1952, for example, a farmer received 47 cents of every dollar spent on food in the grocery story. By 2000, that amount had dropped to 20 cents.

As a result, taxpayers need to understand the importance of providing farmers with financial assistance that would allow their businesses to thrive while also protecting the environment, Baker said. Successful programs, he said, include subsidies given to farmers to fence livestock away from streams, plant buffer strips along tributaries and grow certain cover crops, such as barley, to take up excess nitrogen from the soil.

"Farmers are good stewards of the land," Baker said, as a herd of cows milled behind him. "Clearly, additional funds are needed."

The report called for a fairer distribution of the federal government's $131 billion a year in agricultural and conservation subsidies, more funding to preserve agricultural land and programs to create opportunities for new farmers. The foundation has hired a law firm to lobby the federal government for a bigger cut of agricultural spending and has pursued legislative initiatives in all three bay states.

Baker said the foundation reached out to the farmers because the two groups realized they could make more progress by working as allies.

"It's a delicate thing for both our constituencies," said Michael Heller, who manages Clagett Farm for the foundation.

Hance, who faces reelection as the farm bureau head this year, said he was not sure how folks on the ground would react to the rapprochement. He said few, except the bureau's leadership, even knew that he had accepted the olive branch proffered by the environmental group last week.

"I guess I'm going to have to defend what I'm doing today with these people," Hance said. "I just hope they don't tar and feather me."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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