Maryland Farmers Confront Complex Legal Issues

November 26, 2019    |  

Keith Ohlinger, 50, owner of Porch View Farm in Howard County, got straight to the point. “Farming is hard work,” he told the sold-out crowd at the fifth annual Agricultural and Environmental Law Conference held Nov. 14, 2019, in Annapolis, Md.

Maryland Department of the Environment Assistant Secretary Suzanne Dorsey, PhD, engages in a discussion with a conference attendee.

Maryland Department of the Environment Assistant Secretary Suzanne Dorsey, PhD, engages in a discussion with a conference attendee.

The popular conference, hosted by the University of Maryland Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI), brought farming and conservation experts together at the Crowne Plaza Annapolis for an exchange of ideas on legal topics impacting Maryland’s farming and environmental communities.

Addressing the packed conference room, Donald B. Tobin, JD, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said he is proud of the work ALEI does to support agriculture in Maryland. “We pledge to continue to provide this kind of education to farmers so that you can not just survive, but thrive,” he said.

Ohlinger, who raises heritage breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, geese, rabbits, and honeybees, shared the challenges of farm life as a speaker on a panel titled, “What’s That Smell? Managing Neighbor Relations When Legal Issues Arise.”

He outlined the legal difficulties he faced as a livestock farmer in a rapidly changing rural community that attracts commuters in search of a more bucolic setting. “I was surrounded by people who hated my guts,” he said, describing neighbors who expressed fear of declining property values.

Mayhah Suri, a faculty specialist with the Department of Agricultural and Research Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), explained how urban sprawl creates challenges for farmers. “That means that people who aren’t used to being next to farms are now moving in next door. Unfortunately, this can cause conflict,” said Suri, who went on to explain some of the intricacies of Maryland’s right to farm laws.

The enlightening panel was one of several designed to engage and educate the audience of farmers, lawyers, students, and lawmakers. Other panels included:

The subject of the keynote panel, “Emerging Opportunities in Ecosystem Trading Markets,” was a hot topic for farmers looking for ways to increase their revenue streams. Talbot County farmer Kyle Hutchison was on a fact-finding mission to get the latest information on carbon, nutrient, and water quality trading to determine how his farm can participate. Hutchison said his farm, which produces 11 different crops including barley, wheat, and soybeans, uses environmental practices that in some cases reduce yield and profits.

“If I’m going to adopt some of those practices, I’ve got to look for an alternative source of income,” he explained.

Keynote panelists included Suzanne Dorsey, assistant secretary, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE); Matthew Clagett, assistant attorney general, MDE; Kris Johnson, deputy director of agriculture, North America Program, The Nature Conservancy; and Lisa Wainger, PhD, research professor, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Joanne Ivancic, executive director of Advanced BioFuels USA, said she’s been coming to the ALEI Conference for several years because of the intersection of biofuels, land use, and the law. In 2016, her educational nonprofit worked with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) on a USDA study to determine whether sugar beets, also known as “energy” beets, could be used to produce jet fuel.

She was excited to hear the keynote panelists’ insights regarding nutrient trading because the UMES study found that energy beets pulled large amounts of phosphorus from the soil. Phosphorous is a byproduct of the numerous chicken farms that dot Maryland’s Eastern Shore and contribute to runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

“If they [beets] could pull that phosphorous up, then it doesn’t make its way into the bay and become a nutrient for algae blooms,” she said. Currently there’s no crop-based credit system, “so it’s an issue worth thinking about,” she added.

Maryland State Sen. Adelaide Eckardt, MS ’81, represents a large portion of the Eastern Shore. Many of her constituents are farmers and watermen, and she rattled off a list of conference topics important to her home district, including nutrient trading, neighbor relations, and solar property rights. “Everything here is right up my alley,” she said. “That’s why I come. I love it.”

“I hope attendees came away with a better appreciation of the range of legal issues farmers in the 21st century face,” said ALEI managing director Sarah Everhart, JD. “The lawyers in attendance heard from the experts about issues important to their clients such as solar energy and nutrient trading. From speaking to the farmers who attended, I know they appreciated learning about state and federal environmental developments that can have an impact on their operation.”

Despite the challenges he faces on his Howard County farm, Ohlinger is not giving up. “I love farming and I’m never going to stop fighting for our farmers,” he said. “It’s a noble industry and there’s good people here.”

ALEI is a collaboration of the Carey School of Law at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB); the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UMCP; and the School of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at UMES. ALEI is an initiative of the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State, a collaboration between UMB and UMCP. This partnership leverages the sizable strengths and complementary missions of both institutions to strengthen Maryland’s innovation economy, advance interdisciplinary research, create opportunities for students, and solve important problems for the people of Maryland and the nation.