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August 10, 2005

Agriculture's Seat at the Table - Part 1

Kevin E. Dayhoff

When Gov. Robert Ehrlich first took office, one of the many welcome things he said was that agriculture in Maryland "had a seat at the table."

The most recent state agricultural data, from the 2002 National Census of Agriculture, indicates that there are 12,198 farms in Maryland, making it the number one industry in the state. The number one agricultural business in Maryland is poultry, followed by my old farming business background, the green industry, nursery stock and landscaping, with dairy coming in at number three. It is good to get a seat at the table before we run out of food to put on it.

One of the first things Governor Ehrlich did was to appoint both a secretary and deputy secretary of Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), who actually speak and understand farming.

Secretary Lewis Riley, of Wicomico County, has more than 50 years experience as an active farmer and poultyman. He has a great deal of experience in the byzantine halls of Maryland state government, having served in the Maryland General Assembly as a delegate from 1978 to 1987; and he has served as secretary and deputy secretary of MDA in the 1990s. Mr. Ehrlich remarked at his appointment: "Lewis Riley will give farmers a long-overdue place at the table in Annapolis. Under his stewardship, state government will strike a careful balance between a healthy farming economy and a healthy environment."

In addition, veterinarian Dr. John Brooks, deputy secretary of MDA comes from a calf-cow, grain and hay production background and has practiced veterinary medicine for 25 years.

The governor said "agriculture is essential to our state's economy, environment and quality of life, and I am committed to promoting its long-term viability." I, for one, took him at his word. He vowed to be an agriculturally and environmentally conscious governor and, in my humble opinion, he said what he meant and he meant what he said.

That stated, I understand that there are enormously complicated and inter-related issues influencing agricultural sustainability and food security (and not necessarily security from threats from terrorism), and how agriculture intersects with the greater economic and social contract, population growth pressures and demographics, geopolitical impacts, environmental dynamics and sociological forces.

Just how is Governor Ehrlich going to put into action his "commitment to promoting the long term viability of farming in Maryland?" Will he be able to find the time and the resources necessary to address these issues? And how many of the challenges are not in the control of the governor of Maryland?

I have been quite impressed with the Bay Restoration Fund initiative. (I was appointed by the governor to the Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee.) Instead of giving lip service to the enormous challenges of municipal wastewater treatment plants, Governor Ehrlich made the tough decisions, developed a plan, and then funded the plan. That took guts and leadership and that is what I am expecting from him in addressing the issues of agriculture in Maryland.

We can start by increasing the funding for agriculture land preservation and for the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, both of which are the immediate life preservers for agriculture in the state.

If we can fully fund the $1.3 billion Thornton school aid plan, we can fully fund the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, agricultural land preservation and fund some programs to address the high cost of energy for farmers. If Maryland can use its bond rating for a low interest loan program for first time homebuyers, we can bond out a low interest-borrowing program for first time farm buyers.

How about funding for programs to address Ag Smart and sensible legislative, land use, regulatory, economic and tax policies that understand and promote the Agriculture Industry? We need a stronger emphasis on education - not only in the school system, but also targeted towards appointed and elected leaders, bankers, business persons and the legal community. We would benefit from better and more cost efficient management practices; increased vertical integration and diversification of the business; more emphasis and exploration of alternative ag and residual products for profit.

The state can also help explore better product transportation systems and open up the Port of Baltimore for more products to be sold to foreign markets? And, oh, while we are at it, the state can pay all the costs associated with the implementation of the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, or make nutrient management science based and then still pay all the costs.

I'd even be willing to fund a study and pilot program for methane digesters, solar and wind based energy production. (I see New Jersey has two dozen farms with solar power systems, thanks to their state's financial incentives.) We need to find the time and the money to think outside the box and look more into pelletizing chicken manure or utilizing chicken feathers as a petroleum substitute, or expanding the production of ethanol. Yes, you read that correctly, I said chicken feathers.

We need to increase the funding at the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center and the University of Maryland to look into such ideas. We've got lots of chicken feathers that can be used in the making of products such as a plastic substitute, household insulation and filters for drinking water and air conditioning.

I know that folks on the Eastern Shore read The Tentacle. Call this column to Kenny Bounds' attention and tell him that I will be calling to book a tour of the chicken industry on the shore.

I know the nursery stock industry and I have good friends who know hogs, dairy, grain and cattle. I'm really weak on poultry issues and it is the number one ag business in the state. As goes poultry, so goes much of the state's grain business and many other related businesses.

While I'm on the shore I think I'll visit my brother in Claiborne and visit Senator Lowell Stoltzfus' cabbage farm operation. I want to see what 30 million cabbages look like.

In Part Two tomorrow, I'll look at some of the other challenges faced by agriculture in Maryland and explore some other solutions.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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