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As Long as We Remember...

August 11, 2005

Maryland Agriculture's Seat at the Table - Part 2

Kevin E. Dayhoff

When it comes to Maryland Agriculture, we are in a deep hole and need to climb out. Moreover, it seems that the hole has been getting deeper while we have tried to turn things around.

I can identify four dynamics off the top of my head that have put us deeper in this hole. Gov. Robert Ehrlich inherited an historic budget crisis in the middle of an economic downturn; schools and school construction (The Thornton initiative); out of control health care costs; and a Maryland General Assembly that has been determined to play petty personal politics instead of rolling up their sleeves to pitch in and help. (Oh, yes, they've rolled up their sleeves alright, to sucker punch the administration at every turn.)

Long neglected, and treated like the red-haired stepchild of Maryland industry, farming in Maryland has been virtually ignored for the past several administrations in Annapolis, unless, of course, politicians needed a convenient scapegoat; this in spite of the fact that agriculture is the number one industry in many counties, including Carroll and Frederick, and in the state.

I have spent a great deal of time reading and researching the sustainability of agriculture and the more I dig into the issues, the more I find more questions than answers; not that I believe that I could uncover a magic bullet to solve all the challenges of agriculture, nor did I delude myself into thinking that I could solve all the problems with magical solutions delineated in a three part column. I just didn't expect to get so buried before I arrived at the keyboard stage. In the interest of full disclosure, I strongly considered giving up on these columns several times.

Unfortunately, most of the very farmers, who are on the front lines, who do know the answers, don't have the time to write dissertations or get involved in government in order to address the complexities. I know that we have challenges in education, the environment, societal challenges, national defense and energy - ya da ya da ya. I believe that we are all re-arranging the deck chairs of the Titanic if we don't come up with a concerted effort to address agricultural sustainability in the U.S. and Maryland. I, for one, like to eat.

Take one small piece of the puzzle and think about this. Maryland is already the fifth most densely populated state in the nation. In spite of this, agriculture still remains our number one industry. Agriculture is land intensive. Housing is land intensive. Maryland's population is going to grow by one million in the next 20 years. Where are one million folks going to live?

Let's peel away the layers of this onion even more. According to Eddie Johnson, who wrote in a piece entitled "Economic Status of Agriculture in Maryland" in the October 2002 Wicomico County Agriculture Newsletter, says, "[m]ost of the almost 80 percent of Maryland farms with sales of less than $100,000 have negative net cash income (expenses greater than receipts). Larger farms, on average, earn rates of return that are quite low (4 to 6 percent on invested capital)." He continued by saying that only "[a]bout 3.2 percent of Maryland farmers were under the age of 35 in 1997." I also ran across a statistic recently that says that farming is the second most dangerous occupation in the U.S., second only to mining.

Some of the best and the brightest in the State of Maryland are in the business of agriculture; in one-way or another. They are in production, academia, farm financing, product and supply transportation, suppliers or vendors. These folks are raising many of the most disciplined, best and brightest children. Farmers are getting older, their kids are getting older, and - some day - their kids are going to want to get a job, earn some money and raise a family of their own.

They can do whatever they want to do and be successful. Above and beyond the fact that most folks farm because it is in their blood, what are children going to say when you encourage them to get into farming, get 4% return on your money, work 18 hours a day 365/24/7, negotiate the whims of the weather and the winds of politics and turn down several million dollars for the family farm. They'd make more money off a Certificate of Deposit than farming.

How do we turn this around?

To start with, we have many folks who are making decisions that affect Ag who don't know a stalk of corn from a head of cabbage. During the summer of 2006, I call upon Governor Ehrlich to put together four bus tours: one for Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore, Western Maryland and Central Maryland. I'd like to see the buses filled with folks, who can't tell a shoat from a goat, co-mingling with agribusiness experts. They should tour real farms, not Disneyland farms, so that they may see the real world of farming.

Between farms, while riding the bus, I'd like for everyone to have a report on the various farming operations and a synopsis of the challenges those different operations face and some possible solutions.

If the Maryland General Assembly can find the money to investigate the governor's personnel decisions, they can cough up the money to fund a Maryland Agriculture Bus Tour and Forum. At the end of the each leg of the tour, we could all meet and discuss what we saw, where we've been and where we need to go with agriculture' future.

My point is that we need a generation of Governor Ehrlichs to successfully address the challenges of agriculture in the state, which would suit me just fine. Governor Ehrlich has his work cut out for him and he needs lots of help. We can't help if we don't educate ourselves on the issues, and seeing it for ourselves will go a long way toward working together for the solutions. See ya on the bus.

In Part Three tomorrow, I'll discuss the Maryland Agriculture Commission's "Listening Sessions" initiative, which will culminate in a statewide Ag Forum next February.

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

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