The dairy and beef cattle were no big deal. The hog farm was large, the sod farm interesting. But the last stop on the tour was best.
Four ostriches on a Bixler Valley farm left the Maryland Secretary ofAgriculture and a group of farmers from around the state shaking their heads yesterday afternoon.
It might have seemed like a mirage to the farmers who had been riding in a bus for almost eight hours: Ostriches in the hills of Carroll County.
"Watch your glasses. They eat glasses," Brenda Untener told the group, mostly members of the Maryland Agricultural Commission.
The farmers, who advise the agriculture secretary and governor on agriculture issues, fired questions at Jack and Brenda Untener, who began raising the birds on their farm last year.
The birds each stand 8 1/2 feet or more and weigh at least 370 pounds, Jack Untener said. The females can lay 60 to 90 eggs in eight months and produce for 70 years, he said.
The manure doesn't have to be shoveled because it dries up and disappears, and a farmer can feed an ostrich for 65 cents a day, he said.
But one number really caught the farmers' attention: A year-old ostrich sells for $20,000, Jack Untener said.
Alternative agriculture will help farmers continue to make a profit, said Secretary of Agriculture Robert L. Walker.
"Farmers look for alternatives" when traditional crops and animals are no longer as profitable as they were, he said.
Westminster grain farmer Donald C. Essich, who was appointed to the commission last month, said of theostriches: "You generally don't think of that as agriculture. But, very likely, agriculture will see more of these types of enterprises."
The group of about 20 toured six farms yesterday before sponsoring an evening meeting with the public at the Comfort Inn in Westminster to hear farmers' concerns.
About 50 farmers from Carroll, Frederick, Baltimore and Howard counties attended.
Walker warned them that the state Department of Agriculture's general fund has been cut by$4 million, or almost 20 percent.
It's hard for agriculture to compete for money when health and other essential programs also are being cut, he said.
Walker also said land-use legislation that becameknown as the "2020" bill during the last legislative session is "dead."
Agencies are attempting to draw up "a sensible bill" that willtake farmers' concerns into account, he said.
Farmers and others involved in agriculture, an $11 billion industry in Maryland, need tovoice their opinions on issues more actively, Walker said.
"We welcome your active involvement and participation," he said.
Today, the commission will tour six Baltimore County farms.
The group tours counties in the state twice a year to learn about different operations and to hear farmers' views, said commission chairman Orrell Saulsbury III of Ridgely, Caroline County.
"Farming, at best, is a challenging way to make a living," he said.
Carroll extension agent David L. Greene said he wanted to show the commission the county's progress with efforts in the last 10 years to clean up Double Pipe Creekthrough the federally sponsored Rural Clean Water Program.
Ridingin Gov. William Donald Schaefer's 40-foot tour bus, the group traversed 83 miles to see a New Windsor dairy farm, a hog operation and turf farm in Taneytown, Bullock's Country Meats in Westminster and Spring Meadow Farms in Hampstead.
"We like to share what we have with other people," said Donna Myers, who operates a dairy farm with her husband, Jason, on Old New Windsor Pike.
Jason Myers said he purchased the farm 12 years ago. One of the biggest challenges facing young farmers today is the high cost of land, he told the commission.
Atthe Roy W. Georg Inc. turf farm outside Taneytown, company presidentBert Quillin said demand for sod is "way off" this year. He plants 165 acres of various types of grasses and sells them to commercial andresidential users.