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Thawing icy relations between farmers, bay environmentalists
On the Farm -- Ted Shelsby
Originally published January 8, 2006












Over the years, the relationship between Maryland's agricultural community and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been chilly, to put it charitably.



The two institutions have been on opposite sides of the fence on an array of issues. And it's no exaggeration to say that the foundation and farm groups excoriated each other as recently as the late 1990s during the debate over whom to blame for the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in waterways flowing into the bay.

But more recently the relationship has been undergoing a thaw, and many in the farm community are attributing it to the efforts of Kim Coble, the foundation's current Maryland executive director.

Coming on the heels of an era when the principals of the two sides could scarcely countenance each other, Coble has been spotted with Lewis R. Riley, the state agriculture secretary, at an Annapolis restaurant. She's chummed with Bill Satterfield of the Delmarva Poultry Industry and sidled up to Buddy Hance, the president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

The warming in relations has been prominent among the topics of conversation at country stores around Maryland where farmers gather to keep up on what's happening. And although Hance recently said it was a stretch to say that the two sides are head over heels for each other, he grinned and said, "We're not going steady, but we're dating."

Coble, who took over as executive director of the foundation in 2003, has been working in recent months to heal the wounds caused by the foundation's criticism of farmers as the source of Pfiesteria. The outbreaks killed fish, closed portions of three rivers to recreational use, caused human illness and triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood.

Through Coble's efforts, the two sides are closer than ever in a single-minded effort to ease the flow of pollutants into the bay.

"I spent most of my summer and the fall meeting with farmers and farm leaders, telling them there has been a change at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a very conscious change in how we are approaching our mission," Coble said during a recent interview.

A big part of the change is the realization that farmers can play a major role in improving the water quality of the bay and that it would behoove the foundation to work with them and to help improve their profitability so that farmers stay in farming.

"Given a choice between an acre of farmland and an acre of residential development, the best thing for the bay is farmland, without a doubt," said Coble.

That's a big reason the foundation is tossing its weight behind farm bills in the General Assembly to increase funding for cover crop programs, boost farmland preservation and look for ways to help farmers bank more money at the end of the harvest season.

It was with the help of the foundation that the legislature passed a more user-friendly nutrient management bill in 2004 designed to help control runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from farm fields.

When the detente first started, Coble said she would tell farm officials, "I'm going to tell you about the changes in our approach. You don't have to trust us, but watch our actions."

"I think our relationship with the farm community is far better now than I expected it to be," said Coble. "I give the farm community credit for that. They were willing to say, 'OK, we will give you a chance.'"

Hance expressed caution over the improving relations, however, saying, "It's like any other dating situation: One bad date and it's over."

Riley described the former relationship between the bay foundation and his department as "almost adversarial."

"They did not understand or ignored the fact that the agricultural community needed to show a profit if it was to be able to protect the land and help the bay," he said. "That situation has been changing. It has changed dramatically since Kim came in."

Coble agrees with Riley that the biggest threats to the future of farming in Maryland are the high price of farmland and the low profit margins of most farm operations.

"I'm not a farmer. I don't pretend to be one," she said. "But I've come to learn that farming is not a job. It's not a business. It's a way of life, and these people would love to stay in farming. Their kids would love to stay in farming. But if you can't make a living farming, if you can't put shoes on your kids' feet, farmers have little choice. How could you expect them not to sell out?

"I'm heart and soul invested in saving the bay, and I believe the best way to do that is to keep farmers farming," she said. "I'm not swaying from my mission; I've learned, however, that the best way, the most efficient way, to protect the bay is to work with farmers."
 

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[q] They did not understand or ignored the fact that the agricultural community needed to show a profit if it was to be able to protect the land and help the bay,

---Protect YOUR land------ Help the bay, will happen as a bi product----

----The profit part I would think , would be that your topsoil would stay on Your Land---Then again if you plan on rasing houses, who cares.
-----Like the renter of farm land who gives 1/3 of the crop to the owner for rent, --His intrest is PROFIT, not saving or building up the land ---From road Ditch to Stream edge--every foot yields profit---Farm owners now a days have a diffrent outlook on thier acres ---As I see it , A more of a Gentleman Farmer approach---Can't blame um ---Farm work IS work----
 

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Capt George,

You got me paying more attention to the fields in my area in regards to cover. Quite surprisingly, from my many miles of driving on the Neck, I would estimate that around 95-98% of the fields that I have seen actually do have cover. Granted it came up a bit late this year. So to the city type, they probably wouldn't have been able to tell that there was cover planted until the last couple of weeks. It is really starting to green up now. Hurrah, for the Northern Neck Farmer.
 

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From a former Spotsylvanian farm boy . I can safely say Northern Neck & most Va. farms are green in the winter, cover crops & or grain fields are a Tradition in the Commonwealth-----I live in Southern Maryland & for some reason they allow land to lay fallow, W/O cover---It may be that as former Tobacco Planters , thier intrest for the land has dwindled since the great Buy Out--Also the lack of farm labor, I'm sure enters into the picture---No Till , also probably restricts cover crop plantings ----Spent all day working on my boat , & i'm dragging, But True farm work is more demanding & that I could not do any more---The farm Needs more Youth to be a lasting industry----
 

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Ahhh, now I see where you are coming from. You are accostomed to VA that is mostly green in the winter. I come from other extreme. We would molboard plow our fields in the fall, and let them sit fallow (open dirt) till spring and then disc and plant in the Spring. So when I see fields that are fallow, but have bean stubble or corn stubble, I still see a benefit in regards to runoff (vs. my background of bare land). I didn't realize you were in Charles County. I suspect you are right about the buy out, plus it is more lucrative to plant houses these days.

I agree with you on getting young people back on the farm. All the studies I have ever read puts the average age of the American Farmer somewhere in the mid 50's. The good thing is that alot of younger people who return, are returning from college. I always planned on returning till the last few years and I don't think it is feasible now for me now.

One edit.........I thought the article was good and it is good to see people thinking about working together. One item I don't agree with is the statement that farming "is not a job, its not a business". That is the old thinking. To make a farm work, the farmer better well think about it as a business.
 

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[q]But if you can't make a living farming, if you can't put shoes on your kids' feet, farmers have little choice. How could you expect them not to sell out?

---Yeah, Cry me a river , from your Heated Air Cond, all weather cabin Stereo equipped, 4 wheel drive, Dual tired Chariot---& the kids ain't got shoes---Heck ya even got lights on them things , No plowing by the moon, anymore---Thank goodness for reverse mortages----I do relize crop prices are at a low, even tho were at WAR----
 

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That whole paragraph was coffee shop talk. I hope she doesn't buy into that kind of talk. Again, farming is a business. The problem is that the subsidies that some recieve keep some in business that should not be in business. Believe you me, there are plenty of successful farmers out there that are doing quite well for themselves.
 
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