By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Legislation to formally recognize a long-standing farm environmental improvement program is well on its way to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for approval.
The measure would recognize the decade-old Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) and add further incentives for farmers to sign up for the voluntary program.
Chief among those incentives is reduced liability for farmers who accidentally contaminate water sources. Under the bill, MAEAP-verified farms would be exempt from civil fines for “discharges” into public water.
Rep. Kevin Daley, R-Lum, who sponsored the legislation, said it would “make Michigan a leader in agricultural environmental stewardship.”
“By making it law, but keeping it a voluntary program, we believe more farmers will participate,” Daley said.
And Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, praised the “fantastic program” and said encouraging more farmers to join while keeping its voluntary nature intact is the right step.
Jim Johnson, the director of the environmental stewardship division of the Department of Agriculture, said the program is the first time the state has used a “comprehensive approach” to farm conservation. MAEAP is operated by Johnson’s division within Agriculture.
Reduced liability would be mitigated by the amount of work required to become verified, he said.
According to Johnson, the average farm spends approximately $25,000 to become verified as complying with environmental standards and larger farms can spend upwards of $100,000.
The money goes to equipment to make the farms compliant with MAEAP standards, address existing risks, implement an “action plan” and participate in seminars.
The program, introduced in 2000, works to “identify, address, improve and verify” farms’ impact on the environment. Johnson said it helps farmers become more environmentally aware and make their operations more sustainable.
The lengthy process includes educational sessions, a detailed risk-assessment procedure and confirmation that controllable risks have been reduced or eliminated.
The aim is to reduce the number of discharges of pollutants.
Rep. Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette, however, wasn’t fully sold on the proposal.
While he supported recognizing MAEAP, he also voted against an accompanying bill that loosens civil liabilities for water pollution by verified farms.
“I generally think the fewer laws we have, the better,” Lindberg said, “but if we are going to do this, we need to give farmers a really good reason to self-enforce.” The enforcement provisions in the bill he opposed don’t “have enough teeth.”
However, the Michigan Farm Bureau disagrees.
Matt Smego, its legislative counsel, said its members are “very pleased” with the legislation, calling it a “good middle ground” between farmers and other partners in food production.
“It’s a great program,” Smego said of its incentive-based approach and voluntary nature.
“The meaningful incentives help offset substantial personal investment” by farmers, Smego said.
The Farm Bureau has a goal of increasing the number of verified farms by 500 percent by 2015, covering 80 percent of Michigan’s food production, he said.
Approximately 10,000 farms have entered the process, with nearly 1,000 having completed or requested final verification.
James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said his organization is neutral on the legislation because of concerns with the environmental safeguards.
While Clift said the council generally supports MAEAP and its goals, he said potential improvements to the legislation weren’t adopted.
“Originally the bill gave farmers complete liability protection,” he said. “We worked to successfully limit the scope to that of the current program.”
However, he said some provisions are ambiguous, including definitions of accidental discharges, repeat offender language and increased water quality assurance.
For example, the council wanted more details on water quality monitoring, specifically whether water quality was improving.
However, Johnson said such concerns are “easy to say if you’ve never been on a farm.”
He said lower liability for farmers who are already taking the necessary steps provides a further incentive for joining.
One goal of the program is to “keep from having these discharges on a farm in the first place,” and the incentives don’t relieve farmers of their legal responsibilities, Johnson said.
“Significant environmental laws are in place that still apply,” he said.
Under the new law, the biggest change to the program would be increased scrutiny from increased public exposure.
Snyder is expected to sign the legislation after endorsing MAEAP in his State of the State address.