EASTON, Md. — The appeal of three large Eastern Shore farming operations and 12 neighboring landlords against a decision by an agency of the USDA that they return about $1 million in conservation grant money has caught the attention — and earned the support — of U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
Cardin, in a letter to Roger Klurfeld, director of the USDA’s National Appeals Division, said the 15 farming operations in Talbot and Queen Anne’s counties, based on the evidence, should be granted equitable relief, that is, the lifting of the burden of having to pay back the money.
The farmers performed and completed the projects which the grants funded, a fact which the USDA admits.
The appeal — contained in 10 pages prepared by noted ag attorney Robert Serio — makes the case that the Hutchison Brothers and Mike Elben of Cordova, Md., and Sonny Eaton of Queen Anne, Md., and a total of 12 landowners whose land they work were approved for the CSP contracts under what was then the policy of the program.
Those contracts only became invalid and improper, in the view of the U.S.Office of the Inspector General, five years later when the policy was changed, the appellants claim.
The policy in 2006, attorney Serio argues, was that crop-share landlords were entitled to have their own CSP contracts even though the farming operation was being conducted by a tenant.
“There can be no other conclusion,” Serio’s appeal declares, “but that NRCS changed its policy concerning the eligibility criteria for landlords to participate in CSP in 20I0 after pressure from OIG.”
Here are key portions of Cardin’s letter to Klurfeld.
It is keyed to the Hutchison Brothers appeal but represents, in its arguments, the basis of appeal of the 14 other landowners in the case.
* * *
“Dear Director Klurfeld:
“I am writing to urge you to make a determination of equitable relief in the case in which the Natural Resources Conservation Service terminated the Hutchison Brothers’ Conservation Security Program contract because the Hutchison Brothers failed to correctly identify the extent of their agricultural operation.
“The facts make it clear that the Hutchison Brothers’ failure to correctly identify the scope of their farming operation was based largely on the erroneous technical assistance the Hutchison Brothers received from NRCS staff.
“The findings of fact in the National Appeals Division decision dated Jan. 12, 2012, state that the Hutchison Brothers sought technical assistance from NRCS on its eligibility to participate in the CSP.
“In 2006, NRCS state and national officials conferred and determined that it correctly awarded a CSP contract to the Hutchison Brothers.
“Four years later, and well after the Hutchison Brothers had spent the federal assistance to complete the CSP work detailed in their contract, the NRCS has determined that the agency itself made the mistake in awarding the CSP contract.
“According to the National Appeals Division, the NRCS “erred in allowing Appellant [Hutchison Brothers] and landlords to either exclude land under their control or enroll land they did not control when they delineated their agricultural operations.”
“Clearly, NRCS provided the Hutchinson Brothers with faulty advice. The farmers simply followed that advice. No harm was done; quite the contrary.
“The Hutchinson Brothers completed the terms of the conservation contract, resulting in the environmental benefits the CSP is designed to provide.
“As you know, I am a long time supporter of the United States Department of Agriculture conservation programs. I worked during deliberations over the 2008 Farm Bill to craft the Chesapeake Watershed Initiative, a new program to increase agricultural conservation programs in the Chesapeake Bay region to help farmers, who are some of our region’s best water and land stewards.
“I am pleased to know that many farmers in Maryland, like the Hutchison Brothers, are seeking federal assistance to participate in these important conservation programs.
“Having completed the conservation work for which the Hutchison Brothers received CSP funds, the rivers and streams in their portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed are seeing the benefit of their work and the NRCS’s investment in these conservation projects.
“I want NRCS programs to remain attractive to farmers. I request that you use your review authority to find in favor of the Hutchinson Brothers’ request for equitable relief.
“Justice demands it, and the reputation of the NRCS as an effective advocate for conservation practices on America’s farms will be enhanced by such a decision.
“I appreciate your consideration of my concerns, and I look forward to your response.”
* * *
In response, Klurfeld wrote that he was not permitted to discuss the elements of a case under active consideration but that he wished to assure Cardin that the concerns of the farmers “will be carefully considered before making a final determination.”
Klurfeld added that he and his staff would issue such a determination “as quickly as we can.”