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December 13, 2006

Farmers' Friend Turning In Political Plow Shares

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley announced last week at the Maryland Farm Bureau Convention in Ocean City that he plans to retire in January.

In an interview with WTOP, Secretary Riley cut to the chase; succinctly putting it, "I'll sum it up in two words: It's time."

As for his future plans, the secretary said, "I plan to become the hired hand now."

Many will agree that the secretary will make one heck of a knowledgeable "hired hand."

In a Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) press release, Secretary Riley remarked, "I came out of retirement to serve under Governor (Robert L.) Ehrlich and I thank him for that opportunity. With so much accomplished for the benefit of agriculture in the past four years, I am eager to retire - once and for all - so that I can enjoy more time with my family and get back to working the land."

Secretary Riley is certainly no stranger to agriculture and has worked tirelessly to make sure that agriculture remains the number one industry in Maryland.

He was born in Parsonsburg, in Wicomico County, on February 19, 1935, a fifth generation farmer.

Along with his son, he farms 1,150 acres of grain and raises swine, cattle and poultry.

Secretary Riley was in his late twenties when he became interested in the political arena because he felt that agriculture was under-represented in Wicomico County decision making.

In 1966, he was elected to the Wicomico County Council, where he served until 1978. During that time, he was president of the council for four years, vice-president for another four years and president of the Maryland Association of Counties in 1973.

A Republican, he was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1979, where he served until 1987. From 1982 to 1987 he was the minority whip.

He moved on to be elected to the Maryland Senate in 1987 and served until 1992.

In 1992 he was appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to be the deputy secretary of agriculture; in 1994 he was appointed to be the secretary of MDA. In 1995, he was re-appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He retired in December 1997 to take care of his wife, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Governor Ehrlich called him out of retirement, asking him to take back his old job. His appointment was confirmed a little over a month later.

His confirmation came relatively easily even though partisan politics reared its ugly head immediately after Governor Ehrlich was sworn into office. The Democrat majority in the Maryland General Assembly proved reluctant to easily confirm many of the governor's choices for his cabinet.

However, Secretary Riley escaped much of the bitter rancor of the Democrat's General Assembly, who took out their annoyance at losing the statehouse.

Secretary Riley has been overheard to lament privately how partisan Maryland politics had become during his tenure in Governor Ehrlich's cabinet. For his part, Secretary Riley was able to take advantage of a decades-old reputation as working easily on both sides of the aisle.

This is a theme echoed by his Maryland farming colleague and Assistant MDA Secretary Doug Scott, who showered the retiring secretary with high praise in a recent telephone interview.

"The best part of my job is getting to work for (Secretary Riley,) and learning diplomacy from (the secretary) has been a wonderful education," said Mr. Scott, also known as an accomplished and knowledgeable farmer in his own right.

"Secretary Riley just has a natural knack for working with folks. He always keeps the best interests of agriculture in mind and never lets his personal politics get in the way of furthering the cause of agriculture in Maryland. He is always optimistic and works easily with everyone," continued Assistant Secretary Scott.

Secretary Riley leaves a legacy of successfully helping persuade environmentalists to understand that farmers are a positive part of the solution to the many environmental and quality of life challenges in Maryland.

This is best exemplified by a remark the secretary made at an Earth Day ceremony on the Rossback Family Locust Farm with Governor Ehrlich in Davidsonville in 2003, "You know, in agriculture, every day is Earth Day."

For now, the secretary said, "I'll be working with the staff at the Maryland Department of Agriculture to help make the change in administration as seamless as possible for the farm community, for MDA, and for Governor-elect (Martin) O'Malley and his team."

In a recent Baltimore Sun article by Ted Shelby, a spokesman for the incoming O'Malley administration said, "it is too soon to speculate on who will be named the new agriculture secretary."

However, the jockeying for the job has already begun with many whispering that former Maryland Agriculture Secretary Hagner R. Mister has the inside track. Secretary Mister has been working with the transition team for Governor-elect O'Malley and had previously served at the job for Governor Glendening.

Though no-one would speak on-the-record, most farmers contacted for this column lamented the return of Secretary Mister and are very concerned that the incoming governor may not be too friendly to agriculture.

With comments like "agriculture is a foreign language for Mayor O'Malley" and (secretary) Mister is a "political farmer;" many in the business of agriculture in Maryland are hoping that the current deputy secretary, veterinarian John Brooks, a lifelong farmer, will get the nod.

Secretary Riley mentioned in the WTOP article, Deputy Secretary Brooks "would make an excellent secretary."

One thing for sure, during the Ehrlich administration, agriculture had a seat at the table and Secretary Riley will be greatly missed.

We must all join in thanking him for his lifetime commitment to agriculture and public service and in wishing him all the best as a "hired hand" at Beaver Run Farms.

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

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