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Rally around bills to help Maryland farmers - April 5, 2012

This year's Maryland legislative session has been an especially tough one for both elected officials and members of the public who are grappling with diminishing resources and tough decisions regarding the environment, taxation and regulation.

However, there are some bills to assist the farming community that Marylanders should rally around without partisan bickering.

One is House Bill 1303, which increases the amount of state cost sharing for agricultural best management practices from $100,000 to $200,000. The bill is an important investment in both agriculture and the bays. When farmers have the resources to slow erosion and decrease nutrient inputs into local waterways, they use them. Already passed out of the House, this bill would help give more farmers those resources.

Another bill would allow the Maryland Department of Agriculture to access more funds for nutrient management.

The MDA has been an important partner through the years in helping the Coastal Bays Program achieve its goals of improving water quality and protecting wildlife habitat.

House Bill 1304 would authorize MDA to manage the Animal Waste Technology Fund (currently administered by the Department of Business and Economic Development) to assist farmers and others with alternative management strategies for animal waste.

Legislators feel the fund would be best put to use by those on the ground. The bill passed unanimously out of the House on March 20.

To help agriculture remain viable, the Lower Shore delegation is co-sponsoring a bill to give farmers additional tax breaks for best management practices and for the purchase of tools needed to implement those practices.

With increasing sophistication in farming practices has come increasing costs. House Bill 1309/Senate Bill 976 would allow for subtraction of 100 percent of the expenses incurred to buy and install enhanced agricultural management equipment. The bill passed out of committee last month and is due on the floor in April.

Other bills related to agriculture that should be watched are Senate Bill 635, which would establish a fee structure for water withdrawal and Senate Bill 594, which would set allowable application dates for biosolids and manure. Legislators should thoughtfully review these proposals to be sure the costs don't outweigh the benefits.

The cleanup burden is not on farmers alone, so Marylanders should continue to support a modest increase in the flush fee and bills that seek to fund open space preservation and limit sprawl -- the biggest threat to farming.

Saving farming and open space can make strange bedfellows.

The key this session, as with every session, will be give and take. And one of the best ways to give is to ensure farmers can simply survive in their diminishing tradition.

Dave Wilson is the executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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