When County Executive Charles I. Ecker put the county's farmland preservation program under control of the Department of Economic Development several weeks ago, some were skeptical.
Detractors said it was a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.
Ecker said otherwise.
"Farming is a business," he said. And, as such, Ecker said he wanted to use every tool in the Economic Development arsenal to promote it.
Yesterday was the first salvo -- a 5 1/2-hour Agricultural Education Colloquium attended by 46 farmers, lawyers, business people and county officials.
It's purpose was to "raise and bring about a higher awareness of agriculture" in the county, "to save some farmers along with farmland," Ecker said.
Ray Miller, president of the Maryland Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, gave the group an overview of trends in the last 40 years,including changes in the American diet -- red meat to poultry, wholeto low-fat milk, and increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Farmers and others interested in agribusiness need to spendmore time talking about "niche markets" that result from changing trends, he said. Greenhouses, nurseries, turf farms and cut flowers could become niche markets here, Miller said.
Donald Darnall, executive director of the Maryland Food Center Authority, told the group, "Food distribution is going to be an important part of how this societyis going to develop." The United States offers agriculture as its main export, he said. "It offers an opportunity for world trade, world interaction." Knowledge of a second language is going to be critical,he said.
Conference members were assigned to groups to deal with eight topics relating to agribusiness: the environment, liability issues, security, financing, marketing, education and training, support mechanisms, and the future of the industry.
Farm Bureau president Martha Clark called the conference "a start -- an awareness thing. Wegot our economic people looking at our problems, now we need to get federal people looking at them."
"Any time you bring people with different reference points together is always good," said school boardchairwoman Deborah D. Kendig. "We need to bring all the pieces of information together."
Former Chamber of Commerce president Joan Athen said the small groups helped focus on the reality in Howard County.
"The farmers who attended felt almost as though they were being honored," said attorney Betty Adams. "You can have programs, but if you don't support them as individuals and occupations, they're rather empty."
Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, said the conference pointed up two areas needing attention. "Seventy percent of the farms in Howard are owned by people over 70," he said. "You can't pass those on to children unless you change the inheritance tax. We need to do something to help younger people get involved in farming."
Conference findings will be shared with the Agricultural Subcommittee of the county's Economic Development Advisory Council, which will forward a report to Ecker for action.