Members of Frederick County’s agricultural community say a state bill recently signed into law will be a game-changer for farmers looking to make their operations more friendly to the Chesapeake Bay.
Senate Bill 344, which Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed shortly after session ended, allows the state to pay farmers 100 percent of the costs of implementing certain best management practices aimed at combating harmful runoff. Before, the state would cover no more than 87.5 percent of such costs, which farmers say often left them to bear an unreasonably high burden.
The change “could be huge to an individual that is not working with a big profit margin,” like farmers running smaller operations, said Hans Schmidt, an employee with the state agriculture department’s resource conservation office and one of the bill’s main advocates.
Schmidt said he’s aiming to encourage practices that are good for the environment, even if they may not lead to more revenue for the farmer. In some cases, his recommended course of action could even require a farmer to take a portion of their fields out of production.
Examples of these projects include planting buffer strips of vegetation between fields and water sources to intercept runoff, installing underground pipes to take it away or creating designated wetland areas to store it.
When rain falls on farms without these practices in place, manure and fertilizer can wash into nearby water bodies. There, the nutrients in the manure cause algae to grow on the surface, which blocks sunlight from reaching plants and animals beneath.
That process — called eutrophication — depletes oxygen levels in the bay watershed, creating “dead zones” that can’t support any life. Curbing eutrophication from agricultural runoff is a crucial step toward saving the bay, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But implementing some of the most expensive best management practices can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Denny Remsburg, who manages the Catoctin and Frederick Soil Conservation Districts. In the past, he added — even with state funding available to cover most of a project — the remaining out-of-pocket cost to farmers served as a deterrent.
“Eighty-seven and a half percent is a big chunk,” said Remsburg, whose work involves examining farmers’ properties and making recommendations on how they can prevent nutrient runoff. “But 12 and a half percent is also a big chunk if it’s coming out of your pocket and your operating expenses.”
It wasn’t ideal to expect small producers — who often are already operating on slim margins — to foot that bill, said Colby Ferguson, a Woodsboro-based farmer and the Frederick County Farm Bureau’s government relations director.
In fact, the bill was inspired by conversations with farmers across the state who said just that, Schmidt said. His department crafted the bill and shepherded it through Annapolis.
Sam Roop, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, paid for the installation of grass buffer strips to protect the streams on his grain and cattle farm three years ago. He said he’s hopeful the bill will make producers more likely to implement sustainable practices.
“I just think it’s really huge,” Roop said. “It really means a lot.”
The bill is a step toward completion of Maryland’s Watershed Implementation Plan, Schmidt said, which lays out goals for bay restoration that the state must meet by 2025.
There are limits embedded in the legislation, which will go into effect July 1. The program won’t provide more than $200,000 per farm, and it won’t cover every best management practice. Some projects will still be eligible for only 87.5 percent funding, like manure management practices, Schmidt said.
Still, there was widespread support for the funding boost. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Delmarva Chicken Association and the Maryland Farm Bureau were among the groups that submitted letters of support for the bill to the General Assembly.
Saving farmers money is an environmental venture as well as an economic one, Roop and Schmidt said. While agriculture and sustainability are sometimes seen as being at odds, experts stress that it’s important for established farms to stay in business. Otherwise, they may be forced to sell their land for urban development — which wouldn’t be good for the bay, either.
“There’s a balancing act of trying to keep the environment clean, producing food and trying to make sure our farmers are profitable and stay on the landscape,” Schmidt said.