Maryland Agriculture’s Seat at the Table - Part 3
Last February, Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced that he would be conducting a forum on the issues of Agriculture in Maryland on February 13, 2006, at the Prince George's County Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro. Twelve days ago, I took a break from volunteering at the Carroll County 4-H FFA Fair and traveled to the Frederick Fair Grounds for the first of the Maryland Agriculture Commission “Listening Sessions”.
According to an MDA press release, Governor Ehrlich “asked the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 24-member agricultural group appointed by the governor, to spearhead and coordinate the forum. Participants in the forum will develop policy recommendations. A strategic plan for the future of agriculture will be developed to guide the implementation of those proposals.”
Last July 12 the results of a survey asking 170 farmers for their input about the most pressing issues confronting the future of agriculture was announced in another MDA press release. The survey indicates that profitability; land use management; value added, diversification and alternative enterprise opportunities and bio-security were the four main categories of concern.
There are seven “Listening Sessions” planned across the state this month and the Frederick session was the first planned. It was attended by 112 farmers, environmentalists, Ag business leaders, Cooperative Extension Service professionals and various elected and appointed state and local officials.
I sat with Frederick County Cooperative Extension Agent Stan Fultz. I was impressed with the number of elected officials, who took the time out of their busy schedules to attend. Del, Paul Stull (R., 4th), a leader on Ag issues in the Maryland General Assembly; Sen. Alex Mooney (R. 3rd); Del. Galen Clagett (D., 3rd), Frederick County Commissioner Mike Cady (R) and Howard Carroll Sen. Allan Kittleman were among the many who attended.
I was positively impressed with what I saw and heard. I was impressed by the moderator, Michelle Harvey. It was the first time I had ever met the chairman of the Maryland Agriculture Commission, Doug Green, and I liked his approach. I was impressed also with Deputy MDA Secretary Dr. John R. Brooks’ remarks.
They weren’t having a meeting just to say that they were having a meeting. The room was hot and bare of any frills, such as comfortable seats, carpeting, air conditioning or sophisticated props and presentations. Mr. Green and Dr. Brooks got up and gave us a no frills introduction, Ms. Harvey took over, and the conversation and feedback was candid and blunt. The Health Department was excoriated, the Baltimore Sun vilified, and nonsense environmental rules and regulations thoroughly discredited. In the area of access to markets, comments included the need for transportation and value-added processing infrastructures; access to markets both domestic and international education for farmers to help transition into new markets; and research and development on new products and marketing methods.
Comments on the subject of land included the availability of land for farming, the need for funding for farmland preservation; strategies to protect large areas of land for farming; and right to farm laws. Farmers Markets, biofuels, inheritance taxes, employee and farm labor issues and Ag Preservation were all discussed.
There were several surprises for me in the meeting. One, I hardly heard any discussion regarding the high cost of energy in the cost of production. I was pleasantly surprised by the discussion of innovative conflict management methodologies with respect to the increasing interactions with growth, and development pressures and zoning issues. There was much emphasis on working with folks in order to achieve a win-win. was surprised with the criticism of the Chamber of Commerce for appearing to promote development over farming. I was impressed with the many positive solutions suggested, such as to investigate how Loudoun County, Virginia, has used funding sources from housing to promote product marketing and sales. I was also impressed with the wherewithal of globalization, foreign markets, diversification, vertical integration and issues involving using the Port of Baltimore for greater access to markets.
I was pleased to find the Executive Director Kim Coble, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), at the meeting. I have worked with Ms. Coble on a number of municipal legislative issues in the Maryland General Assembly and I serve with her on the Bay Restoration Fund. I have grown to like working with her. For one thing, you can have a disagreement with her and she doesn’t become disagreeable.
In a later interview, Ms. Coble said that CBF is “[t]rying to make a change…[t]hat from the CBF board down, CBF has made a conscious and educated decision to change our methods. The thing that has not changed is our mission to restore and protect the Bay.”
I have noticed a change in working with CBF over the last several years and I told her so. I was also sure to tell her how I have had interactions with CBF in the past that left me profoundly unhappy with their approach. I asked her how CBF will ever re-invent its reputation. I liked her response. “Watch our actions…” She said that CBF “understands that we can’t get the Bay restored without the help of the Ag community and municipalities and CBF is dedicated to working with…”
I take the governor at his word at working hard for environmental and agricultural change. He has brought a refreshing change to the culture of leadership in Annapolis. He has backed up his words with his actions.
I take Ms. Coble at her word and I have witnessed her back up her actions. I was very impressed with what I have seen of the Maryland Agriculture Commission in action. I think that we are pointed in the correct direction.
It is going to take a lot of time and money, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a few steps. If we keep walking in this direction, we may soon break out in the first verse of Kum Ba Ya. I, for one, am encouraged.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org