U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) today expressed his support for U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Appeal Division's (NAD) decision to grant equitable relief and reinstate the Conservation Security Program (CSP) contract for a group of Eastern Shore farmers referred to in case documents as the Hutchison Brothers. The NAD's ruling ends the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) efforts to make the Hutchison Brothers', Sonny Eaton, Mike Elben and the landowners of the farms repay the nearly $1 million they received in federal conservation funding over a six year period.
"The NAD's decision in the Hutchison Brothers' case is a just decision granting a well deserved reprieve to a group of Maryland farmers who just want to do the right thing to preserve the resources on their farms and protect the Bay," said Senator Cardin.
In 2006, the Hutchison Brothers, along with several other farmers, entered into Conservation Security Program contracts with the NRCS. The Hutchison Brothers and the other farmers followed technical advice provided by the NRCS upon enrolling in the program. The NRCS acknowledged its advice to the farmers had been incorrect and worked with the farmers to modify their CSP contract accordingly. In 2010, despite the modification to the contracts, the NRCS cancelled the farmers' CSP contract and sought to reclaim the funds the Hutchison Brothers and others had spent on CSP projects in their farming operations. The Hutchison Brothers appealed the original determination earlier this year.
In January, Senator Cardin sent a letter to Roger Klurfeld, the Director of USDA's National Appeals Division, urging him to reverse the decision and provide "equitable relief" to the Hutchison Brothers. In the letter, Senator Cardin stressed that the CSP contracts with the Hutchison Brothers and the other farmers were based on the flawed NRCS technical assistance and that NRCS was responsible for any problems with the contract, not the farmers.
"We all have the same goal of protecting the Bay and farmers play an important part in this effort," said Senator Cardin. "This determination is very, very good news because the Hutchison Brothers and other Eastern Shore farmers had cooperated in good faith and it is very important that this was resolved in a fair and equitable way. I will continue to work with the NRCS to make sure that farmers receive accurate information when instituting conservation projects on their farms so that nothing like this ever happens again."
"We're pleased with the positive outcome and thank Senator Cardin for his support," said Bobby Hutchison. "I think his support was instrumental in achieving this outcome. Despite being treated unfairly, the CSP program is an incentive-based program that could be used as a model for future conservation programs that benefit the Bay."
The NRCS provides thousands of farmers with technical assistance and financial resources to help improve the efficiency of their operations and make them better stewards of the environment. NRCS projects in the Bay watershed help farmers execute resource conservation projects like planting winter cover crops and installing stream buffers. These efforts keep nutrients on the farm and out of the water where they can cause hypoxia zones, algal blooms and fish kills.
"The NRCS does tremendous work to help our farmers achieve important soil conservation and nutrient management on their farms," said Senator Cardin. "The working relationship between farmers and NRCS is very important and I want to make sure that partnership remains strong."