A new nonprofit organization headed by former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes has been created to bridge the gap between farmers and environmentalists, two groups that have frequently been at odds over state regulations and programs in recent years.

The Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology Inc. will serve as a forum to bring the two sides together and conduct research into ways that make farming profitable while protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

A major focus of the new group will be a common concern: preserving the land needed by agriculture, forestry and other natural resource-based industries that collectively rely upon more than half of the state’s 6.2 million acres.

One of the organization’s first acts was to award a $75,000 grant to assess land issues that could benefit from attention by the diverse coalition.

“Prosperous farming and good environmental practices are not mutually exclusive,” Gov. Parris Glendening said at a Jan. 24 ceremony where the agreement creating the Center was signed. “We must help farmers be prosperous. We must help farmers take care of the environment.”

But even in the aura of goodwill that surrounded the signing ceremony, no one was claiming that this will bring to an end the sometimes bitter battles in the legislature over regulations that environmentalists believe are necessary to protect land and water but which farmers fear will put them out of business.

“There have been a lot of disagreements in the past. I expect there will be a whole lot more,” said Stephen Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau and a member of the board of directors for Agro-Ecology Inc.

Still, he believes the Center can reduce conflicts between the two groups and help them find common ground. “There are issues we are going to be able to work together on,” Weber said.

Indeed, the diverse membership of the Center’s board caused U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes to liken it to Edward Hicks’ painting the “Peaceable Kingdom” in which a lamb and a lion lie down together.

In addition to Hughes and Weber, the board of trustees includes John Griffin, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources; Gerald B. Truitt Jr., former executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.; Fran Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay; Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Tom Fretz, dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources; and a mix of farmers, lawmakers and environmentalists.

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George’s, congratulated Hughes and Glendening, but said that when the idea was first mentioned to him, “I said, ‘It can’t work. It won’t work.’”

“I still have my doubts,” he added, mentioning the bitter fight in the legislature over legislation regulating fertilizer use two years ago which was approved by the General Assembly over fierce opposition from farmers. But he said the Center is “probably one of the last chances we are going to have to change the ways we’ve been doing things” in agriculture.

The center quickly announced its first grant — $75,000 to the American Farmland Trust for a survey and needs assessment of Maryland agriculture, forestry, natural resource and land preservation issues that will help frame the Center’s future activities.

AFT, working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland Farm Bureau, will review available literature on the issue and survey state residents to gauge public opinion about land stewardship and industry sustainability. The project will also include a series of interviews and roundtables with stakeholders in the agricultural, forestry and environmental communities to develop a better understanding of the issues, challenges and opportunities with the land protection issue.

A final report will outline the gaps within current research, weaknesses in public policy and impediments from an economic perspective. The report will form the basis for the Center’s future work plans and programs.

Besides dealing with land preservation, the organization will also support research and promote policies targeting economically viable and environmentally sensitive farm and natural resource practices. It will also work to promote the public’s appreciation for the aesthetic and economic value of farms and forest lands through forums, workshops and educational programs.

In the short term, the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources will provide the Center with startup funding, staff assistance and office space at its Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown.

The board of directors will seek private financing to help the Center become self-sufficient at the earliest possible date. It has launched a national search for an executive director.