General Assembly Approves Legislation to Help Farmers Make Environmental Improvements; Other Environmental Priorities Fail to Pass in Shortened Session

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to help farmers add environmental best practices to their land, but the shortened session due to the spread of coronavirus left many environmental and other issues unaddressed.

This week the General Assembly passed legislation supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) that will enable farmers in the state to more readily access agriculture cost share funds to add long-term natural filters such as forest buffers and grass pastures to their land. The bill was sponsored by Del. Dana Stein (D-Baltimore County) in the House and Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick County) in the Senate.

While CBF is encouraged by the legislature’s passage of this bill, many other environmental priorities this session that appeared on track to pass before the pandemic did not. A bill to decrease plastic bag usage and a different one that would require the state to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 failed to pass this session, as did several other environmental policy improvements that were being pursued this year.

The legislature was also not able to address the elimination of CBF’s education funding contract. Gov. Larry Hogan eliminated the $440,000 contract in his budget. The state funds were used by CBF to take over 10,000 Maryland students and teachers to several sites throughout the Bay watershed for outdoor learning experiences each year. The funds helped lower costs and enable more students and teachers to participate in the outdoor education program. CBF has received state funding to educate Maryland students about the Bay ecosystem since 1979.

CBF hopes lawmakers can revive these bills as well as address CBF’s state education funding either in the special session in May or in the 2021 General Assembly session.

The agriculture cost share legislation defines fixed natural filters in Maryland law to ensure farmers are fully eligible for state funds to restore wetlands, convert crop land to grass pastures, and plant trees next to field edges and streams or other waterways. The legislation also focuses funding on reducing pollution on existing farms rather than assisting with start-up or expansion projects at large animal farming operations.

The natural filters promoted in this legislation limit Bay pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from running off farm fields during and after rain events. The filters also help build healthy soils by keeping the plant nutrients on the land, rather than allowing them to flow into the Bay. Once in the Bay, nitrogen and phosphorus fuel harmful algal blooms that create dead zones devoid of oxygen in the water that are uninhabitable for marine life.

The legislation aims to encourage the state’s Department of Agriculture to fund these best management practices at more equitable levels compared to the cover crop program. Each year the state budgets about $25 million for the agricultural cost share program. Under the program, Maryland provides farmers with about $18 million to plant cover crops, while long-term natural filters have received on average less than $2 million each year. Other cost share funds are used for manure transport and storage as well as capital projects.

Adding more grass pasture, riparian buffers, and wetlands to Maryland’s agricultural landscape will help the state reach its 2025 Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint pollution reduction goals. More natural filters on farms will also help insulate the state against effects of climate change by sequestering carbon as well as reduce flooding and land loss due to erosion. Pastures composed of diverse grass types regenerate the health of soil by bringing back microorganisms that retain water and nutrients in the soil. Tree roots along waterways hold soil in place and wetlands brace shorelines, lessening erosion during heavy storms.

During public testimony on the bill in the House and Senate, multiple Maryland farmers testified about how these long-term environmental practices benefited their farms by making soil more fertile, animals healthier, and enabled them to reduce fertilizer use.

In response to the General Assembly passing the cost share legislation, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost issued the following statement:

“By passing the agriculture cost share bill, lawmakers are ensuring that Maryland farmers can take advantage of regenerative agriculture that rebuilds healthy soil and prevents harmful runoff from reaching the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. If signed by the governor, Maryland farmers will be able to more easily leverage state resources to create healthy soil teeming with microorganisms, put in place a rotational grazing system to feed livestock in grass pastures, and plant riparian buffers along field edges and streams to prevent fertilizer runoff.
“This is a step forward for the future of farming in Maryland.
“Thank you to Del. Dana Stein and Sen. Ron Young, the sponsors of the agriculture cost share bill, for guiding the legislation through the General Assembly this year.”
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A.J. Metcalf

Former Maryland Media & Communications Coordinator, CBF

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