Fair Farms Interview Series: Maryland Delegate Dana Stein

Written by Susan Webb

Delegate Dana Stein is a strong advocate for the environment. As Chair of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Open Space subcommittee, Del. Stein oversees legislation affecting Chesapeake Bay fisheries, farming, hunting regulations, and land preservation. He has also served as Vice Chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee since 2015, influencing the outcome of important environmental legislation.

Q: Fair Farms is involved with policy solutions that incentivize and promote a more equitable food system and healthier soil across the region. What brought you to care about these issues?

A: Healthy soil programs provide a great benefit in terms of organic production and greater yield, which is fantastic, but what really captured my interest was its climate change value. I attended an event hosted by the Greater Annapolis Climate Stewards, the Maryland Sierra Club, and the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association focused on the benefits that sequestration in agriculture and reforestation can have not just to mitigate climate change, but to reverse  other harmful impacts as well. This was very compelling to me, and I started looking around for ideas on how Maryland could educate and implement this idea. 

Maryland had set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and Governor Hogan signed that legislation. So I was thinking how do we make that happen? Inspired by California’s Healthy Soils Initiative — as you know, California has been leading the way on many environmental programs — I introduced a bill to establish the  Maryland Healthy Soils Program. While many strategies focus on reducing the emissions that go into the atmosphere, healthy soil or “smart soil” practices, such as planting mixed cover crops, no-till or low-till farming, and rotational grazing can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

While my bill is unfunded, it establishes a program within the Maryland Department of Agriculture with a goal to educate and assist Maryland’s agricultural community about healthy soil methods and support efforts undertaken by many of Maryland’s farmers. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce carbon and help protect Maryland from any devastating effects from climate change. 

Q: Two years on from passing this legislation, where do things stand now and where do you go from here?

A: Well, we learned that Maryland farmers are very knowledgeable and already implementing many healthy soil practices because it’s good for soil quality. Drawn in by anti-pollution programs to protect the Chesapeake Bay, farmers also have been actively doing their part to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. A cost-sharing cover crop program, subsidized by the state as part of its Watershed Implementation Plan, has been successful in engaging farmers. Protecting the Chesapeake Bay was personal for them. The Bay is iconic, very much tied to the identity and the economy of Maryland, and this was something farmers could really connect with. 

An opportunity now is to promote the planting of cover crops that are best able to improve the soil’s ability to sequester carbon emissions. There are specific cover crops that have greater impact, such as small grains, brassicas, forage radish. Further, using crimpers to compress cover crops instead of tilling or killing with pesticides can further keep carbon emissions stored.

Q: Do you find you need incentives to engage farmers in helping solve climate change?

A: It can be challenging for some people to connect with the idea of protecting Maryland from climate change. Healthy soil practices have been driven more by Bay issues. But from season to season, having come through the wettest season on record, flash floods and flash droughts, increasingly above average temperatures, climate change is starting to resonate.

Look, farmers are happy to be part of the solution as long as it makes financial sense to them. What works best are cost-sharing incentives from the State to help farmers cover up-front expenses, and peer-to-peer networking with other farmers who have done it. The MDA is looking at the implementation of a voluntary trading program with companies that are looking to off-set their own carbon emissions. Farmers can get credit with companies willing to trade or buy carbon credits. There is a growing voluntary market exploring other financial incentives, but it remains to be seen whether there can be big cash opportunities. 

The other side of the coin is a tax. Last session, as you know, we introduced a carbon fee bill. My goal is to establish a way to allocate a percentage of the proceeds from the fee to forestion and sequestration initiatives.

There is huge potential for farmers to play a role in mitigating climate change. We really have to take an all-hands on deck approach not only to reduce emissions but also to find solutions that take carbon out of the air. Agriculture and forestation has significant potential for that. With the impacts of climate change already surfacing, we need to do a lot more, much faster!

Q: How can constituents help?

A: My district does not have a lot of farmers, but there is a lot that backyard gardeners can do, from planting native species and more trees, using organic pesticides, and similarly, planting cover crops. Other constituents can participate in community tree planting, such as those run by Blue Water Baltimore. Forests and areas densely populated with healthy trees enhance our capabilities to pull carbon from the air and store it in our soil.