Three Eastern Shore Maryland farm operations and their 12 landlords face collectively repaying close to $1 million to USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service for Conservation Security Program payments. USDA's National Appeals Division rejected their appeal late last month, and demanded payment within 30 days.
Next week, a second appeal will be taken up by the next highest appellant level, likely in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, Maryland Ag Secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance told American Agriculturist that he has asked Maryland congressional leaders to support the farmers and "encourage USDA to end this prosecution."
The farmers involved are Sonny Eaton of Queen Anne's County and Mike Elben and the Hutchison brothers of Talbot County. Their farm operations already have fulfilled their 10-year CSP contracts. The eligibility issue centers around how the producers and their landlords signed up the acreage.
"These producers," says Hance, "hid nothing. It wasn't a case of farmers trying to get around the rules." They were ill-advised, he charges. And now, USDA wants the money back for conservation practices installed in good faith. "It's unfortunate that USDA isn't willing to take responsibility for its error.
"The farmers and landowners are incurring legal costs for doing what they thought was right to begin with. And the case may damage their integrity within their local communities and their landowner relationships," Hance adds. "These farmers have been exemplary role models in adopting new technologies and practices to clean up the Chesapeake Bay."
Ag community's trust violated
USDA acknowledges that NRCS staff inadvertently misled them by advising that they were eligible to participate in the program and erred by awarding them separate CSP contracts. But its insistence on repayment has angered Eastern Shore's farming community, acknowledges Hance. "Many other producers are very concerned about contracts they've signed."
Close cooperation between NRCS and producers has helped make Bay clean-up efforts successful. But now, "this trust has now been violated. It'll have a significant impact on participation of future programs when we need to accelerate participation to meet Total Maximum Daily Load goals.
The CSP program, now called Conservation Stewardship Program, was established under the 2002 Farm Bill. Its goal was and is to reward farmers for conservation practice that reward environmental performance rather than prescriptive practices.