An influential farmers group gave its support on Dec. 10 to changes in Maryland’s Water Quality Improvement Act to make it easier for farmers to report how they use fertilizers.

About 280 farmers, all voting members of the Maryland Farm Bureau, unanimously decided to endorse a plan proposed by the state Department of Agriculture. State officials made their pitch to the bureau two days earlier and asked for its support.

Farmers, who initially responded negatively to the presentation, decided to support the changes after two days of discussion at their annual meeting in Ocean City. Some farmers had said they hoped the changes, some of which need legislative approval, would be more drastic and eliminate the need for paperwork.

“I hope this means it’ll pass,” said Valerie Connelly, a spokeswoman and lobbyist for the farm bureau.

The vote signals most farmers are behind the changes and could sway legislators, she said.

“I think in the beginning, they may have expected more,” said Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. “They realized you have to start somewhere in bringing people together. There was lots of discussion.”

The changes include:

  • Eliminating a clause in the law that requires farmers to sign a document giving the state unfettered “right of entry” to their farms.
  • Lightening the paperwork by requiring farmers to file a summary report at the end of the growing season. This would eliminate the extensive plan now required at the beginning of the season.

The substance of the law remains the same, officials and farmers said: The state would still require farmers to develop an extensive nutrient management plan documenting how they used commercial fertilizers and manure.

The law is designed to keep farms from overusing fertilizers, which contain nutrients that drain into the Chesapeake Bay and harm its fragile ecosystem.

More than 9,000 farms statewide are regulated by the act, but only about 57 percent of them have filed the individual plans required by the law.

“Everyone believes this political proposal is the most expedient way to get the majority of the changes the farm community is looking for,” Connelly said. “They want to make the plans simple and less costly for farms, and this is the first major step in that direction.”

Environmentalists say they hope the changes will encourage more farmers to abide by the law.