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In Annapolis Policymakers Claim to Protect Farmers, Protect Bay

By: Christine Grillo

“Farmers are the best preservationists,” said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. (Mike) Miller. “They’re God-fearing, law-abiding, loyal, hardworking people. And agriculture is the Number One business in Maryland.”

Yesterday morning the Maryland State Assembly began its session, and kicking it off was a summit convened in Annapolis by Baltimore radio show host Marc Steiner at WEAA (88.9 FM) and cosponsored by the CLF. The issues that seemed to burn the brightest were those around education, felons’ voting rights, and the opioid epidemic, as well as a short discussion about police brutality—although questions of conservation and agriculture did surface.

Senator Miller, a Democrat who represents Calvert, Charles, and Prince George’s counties (District 27), said that he’s a Farm Bureau member, and that his cousins own the largest produce company in Maryland, Miller Farms in Clinton, Md. When asked if he supports the Farmers Rights Act, he said that he’d not heard of it the bill but would look into it. “Generally I come down on the side of the farmers,” he said.

The Farmers Rights Act (HB 1019 and SB 532) would offer protection to poultry contract growers who speak out about abuse by the poultry corporations they contract with, for example, Perdue and Tyson. Currently, if contract grower reports abuse, he or she is not protected—whistleblowing will most likely result in a loss of the contract. Here’s another explanation offered by the University of Maryland Extension: “The Farmers’ Rights Act would require the use of a regulated livestock contract in agriculture. A livestock production contract … is when a producer agrees to feed and care for livestock owned by a contractor [such as Perdue] in return for money.”

Here is Food & Water Watch’s description of the bill: “The Farmers’ Rights Act will help Maryland lawmakers take meaningful steps toward protecting the region’s contract growers from the often-abusive practices of giant poultry companies by putting forth a set of guaranteed grower’s rights, while prohibiting many of the abusive practices, that force contract growers into poor working conditions and leave them with a tremendous amount of debt.”

We know the Senator is very busy. But it seems odd that Senator Miller has not heard of this bill? His district is largely supported by agriculture, and his family has been in the business for generations. The contentious issue of poultry contracts on the Eastern Shore has been in the media for quite a while. Perhaps he has not been exposed to the issue through his family, which might not be concerned with livestock production since they are in the produce business. But Bob Martin, director of the Food System Policy program at CLF, has this to say: “It is a bit inconceivable to me that Mike Miller has not heard about contracting issues that impact farmers right to assemble or a right to free speech.”

One sad and interesting note in this issue is that in Maryland, 71 percent of chicken farmers have income below the poverty level if they do not supplement with off-farm revenue. As John Oliver explains on Last Week Tonight, “The business model is such that farmers own the equipment used to raise the chickens, and corporations own the chickens. ‘That essentially means you own everything that costs money, and we own everything that makes money.’”

At the Summit, House Speaker Michael Busch also claimed to have no knowledge of the Farmers Rights Act—this sort of makes sense in light of the fact that he represents Annapolis and parts of Anne Arundel County, regions not so big on agriculture. He said, “We want to do everything we can to protect our farmers.”

Governor Larry Hogan was asked by an audience member from Curtis Bay (South Baltimore) about his stance on the trash-burning incinerator, which would be the nation’s largest, proposed for Curtis Bay. (Curtis Bay, zip code 21216, is one of the most polluted in the U.S.; the incinerator would be largest source of mercury pollution in the state.) The governor said that he would have to look into the issue; the Speaker and Senate President said that they were aware that most of the state’s renewable energy credits have come from trash incineration, and that they are looking into ways to bringer cleaner energies, like solar and wind power, to the state. “There’s legislation pending to increase our renewables portfolio,” said President Miller. “It’s a complicated issue.”

Governor Hogan segued directly from the discussion of renewable energy into a statement about his administration’s work on the environment, the Chesapeake Bay in particular. “People are surprised at the way we’ve moved on protecting the environment,” he said. “For eight years the previous [O’Malley] administration talked about doing something about phosphorus, but they were unsuccessful, they couldn’t bring the parties together. The entire ag community felt there was a war on them. But we brought all the parties together, all the stakeholders, we looked at all sides, and we hammered out an agreement in six weeks that some people have called the greatest achievement for saving the Bay to date.” (The governor was referring to long-standing friction between conservationists and poultry farmers on the Eastern Shore; poultry manure, which contains phosphorus, makes its way to the Bay waters in large quantities; phosphorus pollution is a huge problem for the Bay.)

The governor continued: “We want to protect the environment without killing the economy or killing jobs.” It’s distressing to see the order of his priorities on this, since economies are so dependent on the availability of natural resources. Governor Hogan has often said, “Maryland is open for business.” We’ll see how this affects the environment in the state.

“It is fair to say that Governor Hogan deserves credit for imposing poultry manure regulations that are an important step forward for the Chesapeake Bay. Hogan’s phosphorus management rules are – in some ways – stronger than the rules that Governor O’Malley proposed before he left office, although Hogan’s version gives farmers the potential of two more years to comply,” says Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, which has worked on the phosphorus issue for years. “They key question now, however, is whether these important new regulations will actually be implemented, and whether the Hogan Administration will allow the unlimited construction of more factory farms on the Eastern Shore. Right now, at least 70 more mega-sized poultry houses are proposed in Somerset County alone.”

Joe Bartenfelder, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, went on the record saying the phosphorus agreement reflects the best science. Some of the key provisions added by the Hogan administration to the O’Malley version were to allow farmers “adequate” time to understand and comply with the new phosphorus management plan.

In non-agriculture related news, Governor Hogan made clarifications about the controversial vetoes regarding felons’ right to vote, and said that he’ll put more focus and more money into the heroin, which he says is the Number One problem plaguing small communities. Senate President Miller professed to have no knowledge of police brutality being an issue in Maryland. This is Miller’s 30th session as Senate President. At age 73, he was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1970. Speaker Busch has been in the House of Delegates since 1987.

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