The Ninth Annual University of Maryland Agricultural and Environmental Law Conference brought together farmers, attorneys, educators, environmentalists, producers, policymakers, and students to discuss the complex intersection of environmental regulation and agriculture in Maryland.
This year’s keynote panel “The Moore Administration, Agriculture and Environment” provided a unique opportunity for attendees to hear from three key figures in Maryland’s agricultural and environmental landscape. Kevin M. Atticks, Maryland secretary of agriculture; Serena C. McIlwain, Maryland secretary of the environment; and Joshua Kurtz, Maryland secretary of natural resources, shared their agencies’ priorities in managing the intricate balance between sustaining agricultural and natural resource-based industries and preserving the natural environment.
The insightful discussion, which ranged from balancing renewable energy needs with food production to marketing blue catfish was moderated by Craig Beyrouty, PhD, MS, dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP).
The conference is hosted by the Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI), a collaboration of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law; the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources at UMCP; and the School of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES). ALEI is an initiative of the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State, a collaboration between the University of Maryland, Baltimore and UMCP that leverages the strengths and complementary missions of both institutions to solve important problems for the people of Maryland and the nation.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
The Greenest State in the Country
Q: Each of you have different roles in regulating and working with the agricultural, aquaculture, and resource-based industries in the state. What are some of Gov. Wes Moore’s and your goals related to these various industries?
Serena McIlwain, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE): The governor’s goals align with my goals — one of which is protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay. I’m happy to say that the governor is now the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Council, and so that alone shows how important restoring the Chesapeake Bay is. It aligns directly with my goal to fight climate change. We’re very much aligned in order to really ensure that the Chesapeake Bay is restored and monitored. Climate change is a big, big part of that.
Joshua Kurtz, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR): When we think about our natural resource economies, I think the most important thing we can do is work to increase abundance, whether that’s in the fishery space, timber space, and at the same time, really figure out and build into our model how do we think about indirect economic activity? We’re seeing that the new economy — we’re seeing a new way of working and people loving where they live is critical to that. So, we’re thinking about that when we think about how we’re providing access to our state plans and our natural resources, our recreational activities. One of the governor’s goals is making Maryland the greenest state in the country, and really that means sustainability. That means finding balance and ensuring that our natural resources provide the ecological, the social, the economic benefits to all Marylanders.
Kevin Atticks, Maryland Department of Agriculture: When I look at agriculture and the governor’s priorities which are food system resiliency; feeding people; improving the livelihoods of Marylanders; improving the economic base in Maryland; agriculture starts as the No. 1 commercial industry in the state. But if we doubled it, we’ve just doubled our base, we’ve doubled our GDP. We’re growing more food.
One of the governor’s main goals is eliminating poverty. Part of doing that is making sure that there’s good, healthy, local food available. And if any of you, like I did, lived through the lean times of COVID where for a couple of weeks, you just couldn’t find certain things. You couldn’t find your normal food in the grocery store but where you could find it was on a local farm that was able to process their own meat or processed their own milk. If we can build that system and build the kind of food system resiliency in the state, we’re going to be in a much better place for poverty, for economics, quality of life, etc.
Collaboration and Blue Catfish
Q: How do you plan to work together to address the key issues that work at the nexus of your three agencies like climate change, invasive species, and declining fisheries?
Joshua Kurtz: Some of the governor’s first executive orders were the formalization of some of this work and whether that be the Bay Watershed Council, which all of us are on, really formalizing how we worked together on and being clear about what each one of our agencies does and is responsible for, I think it’s important, but I think just as important as that are the informal pieces. We all text each other regularly. We’re staying on top of that, and then we’re building those relationships, not only with ourselves, but across agency at staff level. I think that’s going to allow us to be very successful.
Serena McIlwain: I agree with that. And I’ll say again, back to the Chesapeake Bay and the watersheds, we all have a regulatory role. Together, we’re responsible, the three of us, making sure that the Chesapeake Bay is restored and so we plan to work together. But again, even though I’m regulating certain pieces of it, I can’t do my job without the support of agriculture and natural resources.
Kevin Atticks: A quick example, so we have a challenge in the Chesapeake Bay with blue catfish. So, we’ve got this incredible problem where we have this introduced non-native species. It loves it here. It grows fast. It eats everything. But why is that a problem? The problem is they’re eating oysters, they’re eating crabs, they’re eating rockfish, which makes them tastier. But the problem with that is we’re spending a lot of money putting oysters in the bay to help save the bay. And yet we’re feeding an invasive species. So that’s a place where Secretary Kurtz’s department regulates fisheries and essentially, the catfish, and our agency helps promote the eating of seafood and so we’re working collaboratively on that.
Climate Change and Carbon Markets
Q: How are your agencies working to help make sure farmers can participate in carbon markets and other things that will create a benefit in the climate change problem?
Kevin Atticks: The idea of a carbon market is incredibly attractive to the industry. The challenge with it is that you need someone to host, monetize, create that market. So, markets like that exist when regulation is put on businesses saying, ‘You can’t pollute and if you do you have to buy credits and here are the available credits.’ It’s a little bigger than what one agency could do, but it’s an extremely attractive model.
Joshua Kurtz: We recently had the Conservation Finance Act passed in the state of Maryland. All three of our agencies are working on implementation right now. And what we’re realizing is that procurement is really difficult. We’re really good at buying cars, we’re really good at buying boats, we are not good at buying outcomes. What we’re working on internally is that paradigm shift to buying outcomes. We have a few different things going on. Buying outcomes outside the watershed you look at what MDE’s doing with the Conowingo. We’ve got a bill coming up this legislative session, which I’m very excited to talk about, that actually gets a procurement exemption for DNR so we can use some of our trust fund dollars to pay for outcomes. We’ve got a wide range of ways that we’re working on that. The other thing about the Conservation Finance Act that I think is interesting, too, is it allows us to now have aggregators in the state. So that’s a private industry that can get multiple farmers together, tree farms together, and actually generate credits to sell into the voluntary markets.
Focus on Thoughtful Renewable Energy
Q: How are you all proposing to work together on critical renewable energy and energy conservation issues and opportunities such as solar, bio energy, wind and at the same time to preserve critical agriculture and resource-based industries in the state.
Kevin Atticks: Two things are true. We have to move to renewable energy. That is true. The other thing that’s true is we have to grow food here. And right now there is a target of — the low number I’ve seen is 12,000 acres — the high number I’ve seen is 40 or 50,000 acres of open space/farmland that’s needed for commercial utility scale solar. The problem with commercial utility scale solar is it only works if it’s dense. You need a density of solar in order to make it affordable to generate that much energy. And if it’s dense, it means that there’s not a lot of sunlight getting into the soil. ... And there’s also not a lot of room for equipment to go down rows. In every instance of the utility scale solar project that I’ve seen step one is clear the topsoil — well game over. Now we keep being told that you can graze sheep, you can plant wildflowers and do pollinators. That’s great. We don’t have an incredibly vibrant sheep industry in the state but if that’s the answer — if Maryland, due to its energy generation goals, needs to become the nation’s lamb leader well, that falls under our department to get it done.
But I keep being the one in the meetings to raise the flag. I’m not anti-solar. I’m super pro-solar. However, I’m super pro-growing food. I need someone — a research technology company — to tell me how we’re going to do both. And it may be a more complex issue where you’re going to offset the solar fields with vertical indoor farming and that’s how you’re going to grow vegetables. Some benefits to that, we can talk about it. But my fear is that there will be this rush — in the ways the rules are set up a county can’t say, ‘It’s too much solar. We don’t want any more solar.’ The PSC can override that if there are no limits or restrictions. We’re just asking that folks who are making the solar policy are thoughtful about where it’s going to go. Does it have to be on class one or two soils? Can it be on the lesser soils? Can it be other places? Can we cover Route 50? What are the things that we can do that will help prevent that direct conflict of food versus energy because we need both? That’s the reality of the situation.
Serena McIlwain: There’s a great transition that’s going on right now and we have to think about all the renewable ways of generating electricity. Solar is just one of them. There’s just so many ways to really focus on renewable energy. We have the Climate Solutions Now Act and we have very aggressive goals. The most important one is reaching our 60 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2031. And that is not going to be easy to do. So, we have to focus on this green transition. At the same time, we have to do it in a way that we’re not leaving farmers behind. So, it’s not about just taking over their land and them converting that land solely for the use of solar. It’s about how do we do this together, which is your question, how do we work together, understanding all of the different sectors and make sure that we do it? We meet the goals that we have to meet, but in a way that we’re protecting farmers, and we’re protecting businesses, and we’re looking at it from a way that it’s a win-win for all, that’s the challenge.
Equity and Environmental Justice
Q: How are principles of equity and justice incorporated into each of your agency’s policies?
Serena McIlwain: That’s one of my No. 1 priorities, equity and environmental justice. Wherever I go, wherever I’m speaking on panels, keynotes, that is the main thing I’m talking about. I’ll just simply say this. Everything that we do in our agency will be based on equity. We are looking at everything from an equity lens — that’s from permits, to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, to helping farmers, helping whoever — every single thing that we do in our agency, we will ensure that the voices of the unheard are heard.
Joshua Kurtz: We are following the lead of the secretary of DNR and the governor because it’s critically important and I think what we’re really looking at is where have we had process and programmatic failure in communities for a long period of time — because we can change that and we can change that rather quickly. And one of the places that we’ve seen that the most actually is in our grant program. We significantly changed the way that we do grants. And what we were finding was that a small number of organizations who had professional grant writers on staff were the ones that got our grants. We’ve changed the way we do grants gateway now whereas before you came, and you wrote a single source grant for a thing, right? ‘I want to plant trees in this neighborhood. I’m going to do this really complicated process and we’re going to go back and forth for months.’ No. Now what we’re doing is we’re having people come to us with project ideas, and then funding them through multiple pots to make sure that we get better outcomes and that funds are more accessible to people. That’s one way we’re doing that in the funding space. But the other comment to the secretary’s point is actually understanding where these impacts are happening. And then going out and proactively putting solutions in that space, whether it be stormwater, water, and flood protection.
Serena McIlwain: You mentioned funding and that’s so important. We give a lot of money out for grants and loans. We have loan forgiveness programs, and the federal government requires that we give 40 percent of federal funds to low-income areas. We do better than that. We’re looking at those environments and communities who need it the most and so we are prioritizing even higher than just 40 percent. So yes, funding is definitely going to those communities and we’re putting high priority on that as well.
Kevin Atticks: Thank you, both for the thoughtful policies and how you’re leaning into it. I’ll say some things that are on our mind at the Department of Agriculture. First and foremost, most farmers in the state are old white men and we have to grow the diversity. Second, most farms in the space are multigenerational, meaning that someone bought it and someone else gets it and then their kids get it. In a place like Maryland where development pressure is so incredibly intense someone who’s coming in who wants to farm likely can’t afford to buy the size property that they need to actually have a go at it. We have to be creative in a place like Maryland for how we’re going to get folks who want to farm on the farms.
In a lot of cases, folks who want to farm in the future that are raising their hand, saying ‘I want to farm’ — they’re not old white men. So, the reality is we want to get them land access. How do we do that? I’ll point to the partnership. DNR has been phenomenal as the primary land holder in the state. There’s a lot of land that you’re either managing or mowing or doing something to where for a very low long-term lease and you’re trialing it and it’s working — someone can farm for the first time and do it in a way that is sustainable. They can build equity through an investment in their process and their program and they’re growing in their procedures and their markets and everything else and then go buy the land. Because you know it’s a cycle. Not everybody has access to the money, not everybody can qualify for access to the money and unfortunately, we’ve just created a disparate system. We’re cognizant of that and we’re talking through that internally to figure out how can we institute policies to lessen the impact on those communities of agricultural production.