NRCS official: Shore farmers acted in good faith
By BRUCE HOTCHKISS
It was “fairness outside the law” which freed three large Talbot County farming operations and 12 of their neighboring landowners from the financial grip of the USDA in a former and now abandoned conservation program, so well known it goes by its acronym, CSP.
That grip was formally relaxed and removed by Roger Klurfeld, the director of the USDA’S National Appeals Division, even after similar appeals at lower levels of the appeals process had failed and the possibility existed that the appeals would carry into the federal courts.
The CSP stands for Conservation Security Program, from which the Hutchison Brothers, Mike Elben and Sonny Eaton and neighboring farmland owners for whose land they tilled, received a total of almost $1 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for CSP conservation projects on those lands in the mid- to late 2000’s.
In an exclusive telephone interview, Ed Nilson, coordinator of NRCS national appeals and equitable relief stationed in Beltsville, Md., said NAD director Klurfeld, in ruling in favor of the farmers, obviously considered the fact that there was no intent to deceive the federal government and that, indeed, they had perfomed all the conservation projects for which the CSP grants were issued.
Nilson noted, too, that the five-page ruling of NAD hearing officer Karen King, who held a three-day appeals hearing in Easton, reflected what he called “sympathy for the farmers.”
However, he said, she was required to hold to the law, as determined by the Office of the Inspector General, and rule that the contracts under which the payments were made were invalid.
The ability to apply “fairness outside the law” rests with Klurfeld and it is not unusual that he applies it, Nilson said. “The director every so often provides relief.”
In what Nilson characterized as “the complex and numerous cases before him” emerging from the Eastern Shore, Klurfeld not only granted “equitable relief” from the demand to repay the grants but also reinstated the CSP contracts which, when lifted, had several years to run.
NRCS officials have acknowledged that the Maryland CSP cases have left farmers gun shy of the many federal programs administered by the agency and that applications for NRCS programs are down in Maryland, and particularly in Talbot County.
However, officials said, the agency is drafting “an aggressive outreach campaign ... to renew our working relationships” with the ag community which it serves.
Jon Hall, Maryland NRCS director, called the invalidation of the Hutchison, Elben and Eaton contracts and the long appeals process which followed, “an unfortunate incident” but asked that the agency’s body of work be considered in any assessment.
“Look at what we have done,” Hall said.
Since May of last year, there have been some 8,000 contracts issued through the NRCS office in Maryland.
Only 17 — including the 15 from Talbot County — have been challenged.
“Historically, it’s a sound track record,” Hall said.
Asked during the telephone interview about two NRCS staffers who were familiar with the drafting the CSP contracts at the NRCS offices in Easton back in 2005 and 2006, and who did not testify in the appeals process,
Hall said that in the intervening years, one received a promotion to a post in national headquarters in Washington and the other a requested transfer to a county office nearer her home.
No “gag order” as such was ever issued, Nilson assured.
It is standard federal procedure when a formal appeals process is under way, to transfer all comment and public information authority to the public affairs office at national headquarters.
While conceding that confidence in the NRCS may have wilted a bit, Maryland state conservationist Hall noted that his office currently faces “a backlog of applications” for various programs.
The problem is money.
“We have more people (applicants) than money,” he said.