- Associated Press - Saturday, November 29, 2014

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) - Environmental regulations and land use restrictions top the list of legal concerns for the state’s agricultural community, according to a recent study conducted by a trio of University of Maryland schools.

While those matters cross geographic boundaries, representatives from different parts of the state cited different legal topics as most relevant to their region, according to the report, which was compiled from interviews with 23 leaders in Maryland’s agricultural community, as well as a survey of University of Maryland Extension faculty.

The reason for the variation is simple: agriculture takes different forms throughout the state, said Paul Goeringer, a co-author of the report and an extension legal specialist with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

George Ritchie, co-chair of Gordon Feinblatt LLC’s agricultural law practice group, was not involved with the report - but he agreed with Goeringer.

“There’s a wide degree of diversity in the agricultural community,” Ritchie said. “On the Eastern Shore, the poultry industry is very large and drives concerns, but if you move up to Baltimore County, you find smaller farms that aren’t involved in poultry, but have issues with respect to dairy farms or land preservation.”

The study was conducted by the Agriculture Law Education Initiative, a collaboration between the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the School of Agricultural and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

The initiative stems from legislation the Maryland General Assembly enacted in 2011. At the time, litigation was pending between Berlin farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson and the Waterkeeper Alliance, which was represented by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic. The school’s involvement in the lawsuit, which the Hudsons eventually won, angered the governor as well as many lawmakers.

In the 2011 legislation, the General Assembly tasked the University System of Maryland with helping to preserve Maryland’s family farms by assisting their owners with the legal issues associated with agricultural production.

The result is the Agriculture Law Education Initiative, which is now part of the “MPowering the State” collaboration between the University of Maryland, College Park, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The interview subjects contacted for the study included leaders of agricultural producer groups, such as the Maryland Pork Producers Association and Maryland Vegetable Growers Association, as well as state government agencies, including the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

One of the initiative’s major goals, Goeringer said, was to identify the best outreach or educational methods to address agricultural producers’ top legal concerns.

Many of the University of Maryland Extension faculty members, who are located in counties across the state and work directly with farmers, said localized workshops that highlight specific legal issues would be the best means of reaching agricultural producers who are highly concerned about the impact that legal restrictions could have on their production.

“The farm community views the current regulatory system with some suspicion and a great deal of frustration because of its complexity,” Ritchie said.

To better understand the community’s concerns and the needs of specific groups of producers, the next step for the Agriculture Law Education Initiative will be a survey of individual farmers, planned for early 2015.

Goeringer said he hopes reports like these serve as a jumping-off point for lawyers looking to focus on agricultural law.

“It would be very useful if private attorneys could look at it and say, ‘These are the needs; we need to focus on this area and develop our practice to help this clientele,’” he said.

Ritchie agreed that agricultural law attorneys should actively seek out this information to better tailor their practice to what is in demand across the state.

“Lawyers like myself spend a fair amount of time trying to understand the industry and get familiar with the players and the individual farmers, and that’s an ongoing engagement for us,” he said. “Anything that can help us actually focus on what the clients need, as opposed to what we think they need, would be welcome.”

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, https://www.mddailyrecord.com

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