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Farm runoff bill may favor Mennonites

March 05, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

Farm runoff bill may favor Mennonites

ANNAPOLIS - Mennonite farmers - who own more than half of the estimated 800 farms in Washington County - could benefit from a change in the proposed farm runoff legislation that's being hotly debated in the Maryland General Assembly.

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate this week added language that would require the Maryland Department of Agriculture to adopt the religious exemptions from the mandatory nutrient management plans.

Some lawmakers and other officials were concerned that providing exemptions only to religious groups such as the Mennonites could lead to charges of unfair treatment from those who must deal with the regulations.

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"I don't think it's fair to impose this restriction on all of the other farmers and allow the Mennonites to be exempted," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, who opposed the change.

Gerald Ditto, a Clear Spring hog farmer and president of the county Farm Bureau, said, "I don't like that at all. Everybody can claim their religion to be something that would exempt them."

Legislation in both the House of Delegates and Senate would require farmers to adopt nutrient management plans for manure. Under the Senate proposal, the mandates would go into effect in 2002, while the House proposal calls for 2003.

Supporters of the exemption argued that Mennonite and Amish farmers might resist the state regulations, leading them to move out of the state and leave behind land ripe for development.

"If government comes down on them too hard, they might move somewhere where government doesn't come down too hard, like Pennsylvania," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Mennonite farms account for more than 50 percent of the county's farms, said Jeff Semler, a county agriculture extension agent.

Because they are usually small family farms, their total size probably accounts for less than half of the county's agricultural land, he said.

Semler said Mennonite farmers have been cooperative with state agriculture officials and many have been participating in the existing voluntary nutrient management plan.

Asked how they would react to a mandatory plan, he said, "Certainly, they would be resistant, but so would all the others."

Farm runoff has been linked to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and some scientists believe the high levels of nutrients in the bay led to last summer's Pfiesteria outbreak.

Many farmers have been critical of the mandatory plan, saying it potentially is costly and increases government control of their businesses.

Semler said exempting Mennonites likely would lead to allegations of discrimination from other farmers and lead to some non-Mennonites trying to skirt the law.

For example, a farmer who was having trouble meeting the nutrient management standards simply could dump his manure on his Mennonite neighbor's farm, which would be free of the restrictions.

"There's all kind of potential problems with that," Semler said.

Poole agreed the "very loosely worded" language in the amendment could lead to abuse and cause difficulty for state officials who would have to determine which farmers qualify for religious exemptions.

Some lawmakers also argued that if farm runoff causes problems, there should be no distinction made between the type of farm from which it is coming.

"If think if you're going to do it, you're going to have to do it for everybody," said Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington, who opposed the amendment.

A final vote on the runoff legislation could come as early as today in both houses, but the differences in the two runoff bills would have to be reconciled in a conference committee.

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