From The Columbus Dispatch‘s Spencer Hunt:

Politicians love farmers. And fear them.

Public officials will take on industrial mills, foundries, factories and sewage-treatment plants that pollute our water, but they shy away from touching farms.

It’s a fundamental difference in environmental policy that has existed for decades, and it persists with the help of farm-industry groups that persuade lawmakers to limit policy primarily to voluntary programs and cash incentives, say environmental advocates and industry experts.

"We implicitly have decided as a society that agriculture has the right to decide how much pollution to emit, and then we ask them voluntarily to cut back," said Catherine Kling, an economist and environmental-policy expert at Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development.

But some changes are in the works. In Ohio, officials are focusing on farms that pollute Grand Lake St. Marys, and a coalition of state and federal agencies in Maryland is working to curb farm runoff that is spoiling Chesapeake Bay….

…This year, Wisconsin officials tightened runoff restrictions for that state’s farms.

Environmental advocates want similar limits in Ohio. For the first time, it appears the state is willing to create rules and enforce them, at least for farms that affect Grand Lake St. Marys, where toxic algae have likely sickened visitors and killed tourism.

A common link between Ohio’s troubles and those in the Chesapeake and other waterways nationwide is an apparent reluctance by lawmakers to approve and enforce pollution limits for farms. Officials are just as hesitant to even say that farms are the source of pollution.

Advocates blame the political influence of farm-industry groups for helping to keep pollution limits at bay. They say that influence has contributed to laws that have weakened environmental oversight of large livestock farms.

"They wield an enormous amount of influence," said Joe Logan, the Ohio Environmental Council’s agriculture-programs director.

For example, Logan said, farm groups persuaded lawmakers in 2002 to transfer most regulation of large livestock farms from the Ohio EPA to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Of the 75,000 farms in Ohio, many of which contribute polluted runoff, the state regulates only the 173 largest dairies and livestock operations.

Environmentalists fought the transfer of power, saying that state agriculture officials do a better job of promoting farmers than regulating them. Groups that represent farmers argued that the Ohio EPA didn’t have the expertise to regulate farms and took too long to approve permits for new and expanding large livestock farms.

Since 2000, Ohio farm groups and farmers have donated more than $1.8 million to candidates for state office, according to the watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action. About $1.2 million of those donations came from farm groups’ political-action committees. Of those organizations, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation donated the most – more than $952,000. The groups don’t favor either Republicans or Democrats, said Catherine Turcer, director of Ohio Citizen Action’s Money in Politics project. "These contributions are like political seeds in that they create a very favorable political climate no matter who is in charge of the House, the Senate or who is the governor."

Nationally, agriculture and related industries have donated $309.2 million to candidates for president and Congress since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

"You enhance your ability to gain access to powerful politicians when you bankroll them," said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the group.

Keith Stimpert, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s vice president of public policy, said lawmakers and state agency officials rightly recognize and support agriculture as one of Ohio’s most important industries.

One of every seven Ohio jobs is in farming and related industries, he said.

About the donations, Stimpert said: "We need to support and return to office those who consistently vote with us."…