Recently approved legislation became law Thursday that will enable Maryland farmers to more easily access state funds to make environmental improvements on their land.
The law defines fixed natural filter practices such as planting riparian forest buffers and creating rotational livestock grazing systems in state code. It also aims to ensure farmers receive equitable funding for them from Maryland’s agriculture cost share program.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) supported the legislation during the shortened 2020 General Assembly Session to promote long-term, cost-effective pollution reduction measures on farms. The legislation became law without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature and is scheduled to formally take effect Oct. 1.
For many years, Maryland’s agriculture cost share program has been heavily weighted toward subsidizing annual cover crop plantings while just a small portion of funds went to long-term natural filters. In recent years, the state provided farmers with about $18 million to plant cover crops, while long-term natural filters have received on average less than $2 million each year despite them being more cost-effective.
The fixed natural filter practices now defined in law are:
- Planting riparian forest buffers near waterways
- Planting riparian shrubs or other vegetation
- Tree plantings on farms
- Wetland restoration
- Creating rotational livestock grazing systems by converting cropland using fencing and watering systems
The law also prevents the state from using agriculture cost-share funds that don’t benefit conservation. Previously, some of the funds were used to defray start-up costs at chicken farms that created additional pollution.
The changes made by this new law will not require additional state spending for the cost share program nor mandate farmers add any of the improvements to their land. Farmers may choose to make the improvements then seek state support through the program.
The long-term natural filters supported by this new law are a major part of the burgeoning field of regenerative agriculture. This type of farming involves restoring soil health by growing diverse crops and raising several types of livestock to bring back a natural balance to the ecosystem. When done correctly, farmers practicing this type of farming can grow and raise higher quality products that can be sold for more money. These practices make farms more resilient to a changing climate by increasing soil water retention, which reduces downstream flooding in communities. The practices also reduce polluted runoff from land, improving the water quality of nearby rivers and streams and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
During public testimony on the bill, several Maryland farmers spoke about how these natural filters benefited their farms by making soil more fertile, animals healthier, and enabled them to reduce fertilizer use.
In response to the legislation becoming law, CBF Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost issued the following statement:
Already Maryland farmers who are making conservation improvements on their farms are seeing the benefits of regenerative agriculture. Their work provides Marylanders with cleaner water and healthier food, while reducing fertilizer use and conserving land for the next generations. This new law will ensure that the state supports farmers who are putting more of these needed natural filters in place.
The new grass pastures, riparian buffers, trees, and wetlands that will be created with the state’s support will help Maryland reach its 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals and maintain the pollution reductions long-term. Policies such as this one will make the landscape more resilient in the face of climate change.