Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley floated a budget proposal last week that would cut funding for farmland protection in half, according to the American Farmland Trust, a national conservation organization.

Jim Baird, Mid-Atlantic Office Director for AFT, said in a press release that the move to cut funding goes against the state’s traditional support for farmland protection and in the opposite direction of national trends.

“Until now, Gov. O’Malley has supported full funding for farmland protection in Maryland,” he said.

The budget proposal for this year includes $23 million in cuts to the state’s agricultural easements program, which comes on the tails of an $8-million cut by the legislature last year, Baird said. Farmland preservation is funded alongside other types of open space preservation programs in the state through a real estate transfer tax.  

According to Partners for Open Space, a coalition of land preservation groups, the Governor's proposed budget would reduce the amount of money available to fund open space programs in the fiscal year 2015 by almost 50 percent.

"For the first time in the Governor O’Malley’s administration, all cash has been swept from Program Open Space with no attempt to use bonds to repay a portion of that sweep in the same year," a statement on the Partners website says.

This coalition of groups is asking the governor and legislature to use bond funding to make up a portion of the currently proposed cuts.

A survey released by AFT in January ranked Maryland third in the country for the number of acres of farmland protected. The state and much of the country had seen a reduction in the rate of farmland loss in recent years.

The national survey showed that farmland protection increased 19 percent from 2011 to 2012, but overall funding levels remained nearly 40 percent below where they had been before 2008, when states began to sharply trim their budgets.

The results of the latest state agricultural census, set for release later this year, should provide an update on the number of farmland acres gained or lost in recent years.

Virginia’s funding for farmland acquisition and protection has held steady during the past few years between $1 and $3 million. Heather Richards, vice president of conservation and rural programs with the Piedmont Environmental Council, said in an email that the funding amount, while steady, is “quite paltry” compared to the efforts of other states. Washington state, for example, increased its annual farmland protection last year from $700,000 to $5.3 million, according to the AFT.

Virginia’s proposed budget sets aside about $1 million for state matching grants to local programs and $2 million for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, a portion of which is specifically for farmland.

These amounts don’t include the funding that’s available from other local or federal programs for farmland preservation.

The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program that’s part of the new federal farm bill provides matching funds for farmland protection, for example.

But AFT and other groups say more is needed at the state level to meet global and local needs for additional food production.

“We believe state, local and national governments must step up to the plate and do more to protect land and keep farmers farming,” Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of AFT, said in a press release.