An all-day conference organized by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) devoted to the future of agriculture on the Eastern Shore provided an excellent perspective about an industry critically important to the economy of the Delmarva peninsula.
A plot-line running throughout the day’s panel discussions was the pervasive tension between farmers and environmental groups. Conference planners hoped to address the often acrimonious debate and encourage a respectful dialogue.
The debate is simply about the health of the Chesapeake Bay. More specifically, are farmers doing enough in their daily operations to minimize damage to the pollution of the Bay?
The message given by farmers and the secretaries of agriculture in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia was more nuanced than cut and dry: farmers, coping with government regulations, are taking actions to protect the Bay while trying to be profitable. Community and environmental groups seem dissatisfied with the progress they are making, according to farmers.
Photos by Edwin Remsberg
Another message underscored the presentations made on Nov. 20, 2014 at the Tidewater Inn in Easton: both the agricultural community and the environmental groups need to talk. Lester Gray, a Perdue Farms executive, said, “We have too much confrontation today. We are responsive to our customers, consumers and communities.” Use of chicken litter currently divides the poultry industry and environmental groups.
At the end of a long day listening to a plethora of experts, the three agriculture secretaries provided an exclamation point to the underlying theme of the superbly well-organized conference: the need for cooperative, rather than confrontational discussion.
Maryland’s Buddy Hance said that the state needs to improve non-pollution and eliminate the “blame game.” He called for publicizing farmers’ best management practices, such as the use of cover crops.
Virginia’s Todd Haymore called for a partnership between the farming community, environmental groups and agri-businesses. He pointed to the creation in Virginia of a strategic economic development plan that included the agricultural industry.
And Delaware’s Ed Kee spoke about developing a dialogue based on trust and trying to solve problems, stressing objective, rather than zealous conversations. He pointed to a new farm and food policy in Delaware, creating a “healthy dialogue” and a road map for cooperation.
The question after any educational, sometimes provocative conference is where do we go from here?
As I listened to agricultural industry representatives, I clearly could hear the frustration with the perception on the part of some environmental groups that farmers are not doing enough and sufficiently speedily to save the Bay, to improve its health, to control pollution.
Responsible environmental groups, frustrated by the agonizingly slow improvement in Bay pollution, blame developers and farmers for failing to use best management practices to control the infusion of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Bay.
ESLC knowingly tackled a sensitive subject.
In his introductory remarks, Rob Etgen, ESLC’s executive director, referred to the proverbial “elephant in the room”—the controversy and animosity often voiced by agricultural and environmental groups.
The conference did not resolve the conflict. That was too much to ask. It did, however, highlight the agriculture industry’s efforts, whether undertaken by a farmer or a major agri-business like Perdue, to be responsive to environmental concerns.
At a time in history when our conversation and disagreements are often characterized by stridency and personal attacks, I hope that the more than 200 attendees at ESLC’s 15th annual conference left feeling a bit more informed—and maybe even willing to work together.
I realize I may be overly optimistic.