- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Farmers and environmentalists once clashed in Annapolis. This year, it looks like old divisions have been plowed under with the two sides coming together to push an environmental-cleanup agenda that would give more money to farmers to help reduce pollution.

It’s a turnaround partnership that environmental watchers say will likely dominate environmental debate in this year’s General Assembly session.

“It’s gone from boxing gloves to hugs,” said Sen. Paula Colodny Hollinger, Baltimore County Democrat, who leads the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee.

Mrs. Hollinger knocked her knuckles together to illustrate how environmentalists used to spar with farming, a major polluter of the Chesapeake Bay through fertilizer runoff and other waste.

Things are different now.

Environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said they’ve concluded that farmers want to be good stewards of the land, they just need more money.

As a result, there are proposals to give farmers more money to plant cover crops in the winter (to reduce harmful runoff), more money to grow barley and switchgrass for biofuel production, and funding for more extension agents to teach farmers conservation strategies.

Farmers and environmentalists say also to look for proposed spending increases for manure management and a program to help young farmers acquire land.

“What we came to realize is the best way to protect the Bay is to keep a farmer farming,” said Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We’d much rather have a farm operating than having a suburban development go in.”

Lawmakers will likely take direction from a report of the Agricultural Stewardship Committee, which met during the summer and fall and will release recommendations this month. Higher spending on such farming initiatives is expected to make up the bulk of the recommendation.

“It’s probably the most dramatic coming together that I’ve experienced, the environmentalists and the farmers coming together,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat and a cattle and pumpkin farmer from Charles County who worked on the committee and said its proposals would likely cost $50 million to $60 million. “We were once very much at odds.”

Even if environmentalists have won over farmers, though, they may have an even tougher fight ahead of them on another priority — air quality.

The legislature considered last year, but couldn’t agree on, a bill to require coal-fueled power plants in urban or suburban areas to sharply reduce emissions of four pollutants, including carbon dioxide. The “4-P” bill would have cost power companies billions of dollars in improvements.

After the legislative deadlock, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, in November announced he would oversee a rule change slashing emissions of three of the four pollutants, but not carbon dioxide. He called his plan “aggressive yet doable.”

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