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October 12, 2005

Working on the Farm

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On September 20 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released its long awaited olive branch to the agriculture community in Maryland. CBF was founded in 1967 and their website reports that it "is the largest conservation organization dedicated solely to saving the Chesapeake Bay watershed."

Consensus builders agree that we all have an important role to play in our green quality of life, but - never-the-less - ponder if CBF has become synonymous with "pathway conflict" and a proxy for other folk's acrimonious political agendum.

One wonders if it is true that the motto of CBF is "the beatings will continue until the environment improves;" that perhaps CBF's constant negative criticism is synonymous with the casual cynicism that passes for contemporary environmental realism.

This "pro-environment" and "anti-environment" hype doesn't have to be real, nor is it working. It's an artificial matrix put down on the dialogue in order to foster a conflict so the people who profit from conflict can drive a wedge between the important stakeholders.

This unnecessary conflict has become a simplistic, sound-bite proxy tool for liberals to criticize market-forces oriented conservatives who yearn for a reasoned approach to the future health of the bay without the frenzied doom-and-gloom theatrics and political hyperbole.

We share a common goal. Hopefully we can come to an agreement as to how to get there. Part of that equation is trust and confidence building. This CBF report is a big step in the correct direction.

An introduction to the report, "Vital Signs: Assessing the State of Chesapeake Agriculture in 2005," states that: "Often people give little thought to their connection to farming. The facts are that agriculture plays critical and diverse roles throughout the region. Right now it is in a precarious position. If farming becomes no longer profitable, we may lose farming in our region - a prospect that could spell disaster for our rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay."

"Our report identifies 12 indicators, or vital signs, in three categories - community, economics, and environment - to assess the health of Chesapeake agriculture in 2005."

On page six, the last sentence of the introduction reads: "Finally, CBF is committed to working with farmers and others to ensure the future of agriculture in the region."

My view is that agriculture understands it has a social contract with all of Maryland to do everything possible to facilitate a meaningful dialogue with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It is critical that we do everything possible to build a cooperative foundation to save both agriculture and the bay.

In a conversation with CBF Maryland Executive Director Kim Coble at the Frederick Fair Grounds on August 1, during the first of the Maryland Agriculture Commission "Listening Sessions," she went out her way to say CBF wants to work with farmers. Dr. Beth McGee, CBF senior scientist, echoed those remarks at a Bay Restoration Fund meeting on August 31.

In a follow-up conversation on August 5, Ms. Coble said that CBF is "trying to make a change. from the CBF Board down CBF has made a conscious and educated decision to change our methods. The thing that has not changed is our mission to restore and protect the bay."

Many in Maryland's agricultural environmental movement have long awaited a sustained and positive shift in CBF's approach to partnering in an effort to work together for the future health of the Chesapeake Bay.

As the Gazette politely put it in Mary Ellen Slayter's Capital News Service article on September 23, the CBF study was "the first of its kind by the foundation."

The article went on to say that the report used "12 indicators - including the number and size of farms, fertilizer efficiency and soil erosion - to evaluate the health of farming in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The indicators were chosen after consultation with farmers, agricultural researchers and environmentalists."

On August 5, I shared with Ms. Coble that folks have noticed a change in CBF over the last several years, but many have had interactions with CBF that left them unhappy with their approach. I asked her how would CBF re-invent its reputation.

Her reply, "Watch our actions. CBF understands that we can't get the bay restored without the help of the agriculture community and municipalities and CBF is dedicated to working with (them)."

It is obvious that a lot of heartfelt work went into "Vital Signs" and everyone is encouraged to take the time to read it.

The last paragraph in the report is especially encouraging. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker wrote: "While some believe that more regulations on farmers should be imposed, we believe a spirit of mutual trust and an agreement to address farm profitability, region-wide, will pay real dividends. Clearly, government investment in conservation technology for farmers has been inadequate. This must change if farming is going to remain viable and clean water goals are to be met."

Hopefully this change in approach is real and not part of a fantasy of surgical preemption. Last February, Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced that he would be conducting a forum on the issues of agriculture in Maryland on February 13, 2006.

The health of agriculture and the bay are sure to be the topic of discussion and legislation in the 2006 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a few steps. We all need to work together in order to do better.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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