Collective Farming on the Bay -- It Doesn't Work

FRANK T. GRAY

January 14, 1993|By FRANK T. GRAY

The 20th century's noble experiment in agricultural production has been the collective farm as developed and practiced in the Peoples' Republic of China and the former Soviet Union. It didn't work.

At the same time, we in Maryland have operated one agricultural industry, oyster production, primarily as a large collective farm. It hasn't worked here either. At least in China, Russia and Ukraine, unlike Maryland, government policy has recognized the failure and encouraged private ownership and operation of farms.

For about the last 65 years Maryland has relied on a state-run oyster farming operation. The state, at its expense, deposits oyster shells to catch young free-swimming oysters, about two weeks old, when they drop to the bottom and need a hard clean surface (old oyster shells are ideal) to which to attach.

In certain areas, such as the St. Mary's River, the oyster ''set'' is generally quite favorable. Often the concentration is so high that the oysters would be too crowded to survive effectively. So, when they are about a year old the state takes them up and broadcasts them in growing areas in the bay or tributaries.

After a growing period of about two more years, during which they are off-limits, these growing bars are opened to oystering by licensed watermen (the collective farmers) who harvest them for the market. They pay a per-bushel tax to the state to cover part of the cost of the operation. The balance is subsidized from general state revenues.

Public involvement in oystering began in 1882, when the governor and legislature appointed a commission to study the industry and recommend policy. The harvesting of oysters in public waters was then totally unregulated. The commission was headed by Dr. William K. Brooks, a distinguished zoologist of Johns Hopkins University.

In its 1884 report, the commission recommended private cultivation of oysters on tidewater bottoms in the manner of land-based agricultural crops. ''As the oyster stays where it is put, there is no difficulty in securing to private cultivators the fruits of their own industry.''

As an interim measure, the commission recommended that the state commence a demonstration project in oyster farming. Shells (''clutch'') would be planted in known high-production ''seed'' areas. The year-old young oysters would be transplanted to growing bars, just as tobacco farmers plant high concentrations of seed in seed beds and then transplant the young plants to growing fields. The demonstration project would serve as a model for private oyster farmers who would then acquire rights to tidewater bottom for individual farming operations.

The commission's ultimate recommendation foretold our own much later experience with socialized production: ''Nothing, which can be safely intrusted to private enterprise, should be undertaken by the State, and the history of the oyster fishing in Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as that of France, shows that oyster culture can safely be intrusted to the private interest of the oyster farmers. . . . Oyster property of the State should be put into the hands of private farmers.''

Instead, Maryland began the demonstration project in 1926 and never got any further. Production has declined dramatically. In the 1884-85 oyster season Maryland produced 15,000,000 bushels of oysters. For the last half-dozen seasons, annual production has been less than 2,000,000. And the means for private farming, that is, availability of tidewater bottom for exclusive use by private farmers, never came into existence except on a minimal and inconsequential basis.

There have been two attempts at the legislative action required. About70 years ago, after vigorous lobbying by a Baltimore lawyer, a bill was enacted authorizing the lease of oyster bottoms to private farmers. But the watermen, who lived by taking public oysters without responsibility for planting them, and who feared competition from private farmers, were successful the next legislative session in imposing restrictions on leasing that effectively killed private oyster-farm leases on any meaningful scale.

In 1951, Delegates Sam Hopkins, Eddie Milanicz and Gordon Boone introduced a bill prepared by the state Junior Chamber of Commerce that would have opened the 270,000-plus acres of barren bottom in the bay to leasing for private oyster farming. Again protesting watermen descended on Annapolis; the tidewater delegates made a deal with the Pollock organization in Baltimore and killed the bill.

Since 1951 the political climate has changed, and the number of watermen doing commercial oystering has declined, along with oyster production. In every seaboard state from Massachusetts to Virginia, except Maryland, most if not all oyster production is from private farms. Although the natural resource of the Bay and its Maryland tributaries is vastly superior to that of the other states for oyster production, they all produce more privately than Maryland does publicly.

Year after year, we do nothing to permit, much less encourage, the development of what could be a $100 million industry in our state. The problem is political, not technological. The solution has been before us for more than 100 years.

Frank T. Gray is a Baltimore lawyer.

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