OCEAN CITY – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was in Ocean City this week to address the annual meeting of the Maryland Farm Bureau and sought support for a bill he is sponsoring to bring state and local farmers to the table in the effort to restore and preserve the Chesapeake Bay.
Cardin addressed Maryland Farm Bureau members on Monday at the agency’s annual meeting at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. The senator is one of the main architects of a bill, entitled the Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem Restoration Act, that includes provisions giving state farmers more resources to help save the bay.
Cardin told bureau members farming continues to be Maryland’s largest industry, but the state’s farmers continue to face difficult challenges including rising land costs, growing development, increased regulation and international trade pressures. The senator told farm bureau members the intent of the bill is to restore and preserve the Chesapeake, but there are elements in the legislation that could provide a windfall for the struggling farming industry.
For years, farmers have borne the brunt of nutrient loading reduction efforts for the Chesapeake with stringent regulations already in place for the amount of run-off that leach into the watershed. One of the main components of Cardin’s bill would allow farmers who are exceeding the minimum standards to trade or sell nutrient credits to developers or municipalities with wastewater treatment issues.
A recent study revealed an interstate nutrient trading program would significantly reduce the amount of nutrients finding there way into the bay while providing a potentially huge revenue source for farmers. The study concluded the nutrient trading program could provide anywhere from $45 million to $300 million in revenue for farmers in the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, including as much as $85 million for Maryland farmers alone.
Maryland farmers have been asked to do so much for Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts already, so farm bureau members in attendance on Monday were generally a cynical bunch. However, Cardin assured them the nutrient credit trading provision in the bill is very real and not another false promise seen in the past.
“There is money out there that can be made by farmers,” he said. “It’s not fair to ask farmers to do more than their share, but if they do, they can sell those credits to developers or municipalities.”
Cardin urged the state’s farm bureau to embrace the bill, for its own sake and for the sake of the Chesapeake Bay. He suggested the two motives go hand in hand with each other.
“Agriculture can continue to be a dominant industry in Maryland, not just for you, but for your children and grandchildren,” he said. “At the same time, we can leave a healthy Chesapeake Bay for future generations. I don’t think those two goals are inconsistent.”
Not all in attendance were convinced the nutrient trade provision in the bill was in the best interest of the farming industry. Farm Bureau member Skip Pieper questioned his colleagues about their confidence in the bill.
“How many of you think selling our nutrient credits is really an option,” said Pieper. “”It’s not going to work. You’re putting your hope on something misguided.”
Cardin, however, insisted the partnership between farmers and the state and federal government is paramount for the future health of the bay. He urged farm bureau members to come to the table as partners in the effort.
“Let’s work together on this,” he said. “We want local controls, not controls in Washington. We’re all very concerned about the failures of the last few years. We have to find a better way to achieve our goals.”
Another farm bureau member, Jerry O’Mara, questioned whether the poultry side of the state’s farming industry, which is so important on the Eastern Shore including Worcester County, was getting a fair shake in Cardin’s proposed legislation.
“A major part of the farming industry in Maryland is poultry,” said Jerry O’Mara. “If poultry were to leave, an enormous amount of land would go into non-agricultural use, which could be devastating for the bay.”
An important part of the proposed bill is the opportunity for farmers to trade or sell their excess nutrient credits to developers or local governments experiencing shortfalls in their own programs. So much of development and growth is tied to wastewater capacity issues, making nutrients credits a form a currency for development, but Cardin acknowledged the farming industry and developers are not traditional bedfellows.
“There are municipalities placing moratoriums on building because of wastewater issues,” he said. “The population is increasing, and the amount of impervious surface is increasing, while the amount of agricultural land is decreasing.”
The senator suggested his bill provides a means to reverse those trends while protecting the bay.
“The impervious surface issue is very real,” he said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to put an end to development. Preserving farmland has a very positive impact on the Chesapeake Bay.”