ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A sold-out crowd of 160-plus agricultural professionals, attorneys, educators, environmentalists, farmers, policymakers and law students attended the fifth annual Agricultural and Environmental Law Conference on Nov. 14.

The six sessions were designed to “discuss the complex intersection of environmental regulation and agriculture in Maryland,” according to the conference developers, the Agriculture Law Education Initiative.

The ALEI addresses the need of Maryland’s agricultural community for more information about how the law intersects with and affects agriculture’s operations. ALEI defines itself as “comprised of legal specialists and other Extension specialists who help farmers understand and comply with state, federal and local laws and regulations. ALEI legal specialists stay up-to-date on legal issues and educate growers and producers on relevant laws as well as available resources.”

The topics addressed at this year’s conference were:

• Urban Agriculture: Land, Leasing & Liability Challenges.

• Going Solar: The Roles of the Local & State Governments.

• Diversification on Eased Farms — Can I Do That?

• Developing Issues in Agricultural & Environmental Law.

• Emerging Opportunities in Ecosystem Trading Markets.

• What Is That Smell? Managing Neighbor Relations When Legal Issues Arise & an Update on Right-to-Farm Laws.

The executive director for the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, Mariya Strauss, was one of the panelists for the Urban Agriculture: Land, Leasing & Liability Challenges session. The panelists reviewed some of the success stories of urban farms in Baltimore, and the challenges the farmers and the Farm Alliance have worked to overcome, specifically changing city regulations, water access, community support, zoning and more.

What is needed now is “more comprehensive city support,” said Kyla Kaplan of the Maryland Carey Environmental Law Clinic. Among the questions for the panel from the audience was whether the communities where urban farms are active have taken what they’ve learned and improved their own landscapes.

“We have master gardeners giving additional training; there’s lots of interest, demo gardens and plots available for community members,” Strauss said in response.

Siting solar panels and solar energy generating stations is a major challenge for energy corporations and state and local governments. Siting and solar energy transmission were discussed by the Going Solar panel.

Les Knapp, the legal & policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties and Sondra McLemore, assistant attorney general with Maryland’s Energy Administration and DNR Power Plant Research Program emphasized that local jurisdictions have input into the granting or denial of a Certificate of Public Convenience & Necessity. Forest conservation and screening of solar panels and generating stations are the “hot topics.” Whether the local jurisdiction has or has not extensive regulations for the placement of solar arrays and energy generating stations, their input carries weight with the Public Service Commission.

Michelle Cable, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation and Ann H. Jones, conservation director of the Land Preservation Trust, Inc., discussed the some of the thorny issues of compliance with easement provisions in the session on Diversification on Eased Farms. With 800,000 acres in easements in Maryland, issues such as agri-tourism and solar farms on land in trust are timely.

Bankruptcies, Waters of the U.S. in the Clean Water Act, climate change, animal agriculture, the Right to Farm, and pesticides were the issues addressed by Paul Goeringer, Extension legal specialist with the University of Maryland, and Sarah M. Everhart, legal specialist & managing director, ALEI, in the session Developing Issues in Agricultural & Environmental Law. Perhaps the most striking update was that after a dip in Chapter 12 bankruptcies in 2018, there has been a 24% increase in the same period of 2019. With the recently instituted Family Farm Act, more farmers may meet the Chapter 12 filing requirements and filings will continue to increase.

The Keynote panel, Emerging Opportunities in Ecosystem Trading Markets, reviewed ways in which farmers and aquaculture growers can become involved in ecosystem trading. Lisa Wainger, with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, discussed Nutrient Management Credits and the Chesapeake Bay Cap & Trade Program.

Wainger pointed out that trading can lower the cost of the Bay’s clean-up and the financial gains to farmer-traders is a strong motivator. Matthew Clagett, assistant attorney general with the Maryland Department of the Environment, pointed out that Water Quality Trading is cost effective, innovative and trusted by the agricultural community.

Kris Johnson with The Nature Conservancy explained the Conservancy’s goal is to “achieve widespread adoption of adaptive soil health and nutrient management systems on more than 50% of U.S. cropland by 2025.”

The last panel addressed Managing Neighbor Relations When Legal Issues Arise and an update on Right-to-Farm Laws. The panel emphasized the success of Maryland’s unique Agricultural Reconciliation Board system.

The emphasis here is on avoiding the courts to remedy disputes between farmers and their neighbors. Maryland’s Right-to-Farm Law was passed in 1981 and updated in 2014 and protects farmers from nuisance suits, but the law also requires that farmers demonstrate good farming and aquaculture practices. The institution of Neighbors Relations Workshops have also promoted greater understanding of the issues that can divide a farm from its community.

As was evident from the variety of topics and complexity of information provided, the ALEI conference serves a vital purpose.

As the ALEI states, “When Maryland’s farm families are able to understand and navigate the laws that impact them, it benefits their operations, the agricultural food network and the entire state.”