Getting a taste of Howard farming Officials and farmers see present and potential of county's agriculture

October 01, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Farmers, historically a quiet bunch, have never been very good at marketing their cause, especially in suburban areas such as Columbia and bustling U.S. 1.

And that's why two dozen county officials, farmers and residents piled into a bus for a tour of agriculture in eastern Howard County yesterday morning.

"We want to get the story out there, show people the variety of agriculture businesses there are in the county," said Cheryl Simmons, a district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The tour, organized by USDA and Howard County officials, began at the Maryland Food Center in Jessup, then went to a 428-acre Ellicott City farm. It ended at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Clarksville.

Organizers wanted to show that even in suburban eastern Howard, residents benefit from farming, especially from the $500 million in sales generated by the Maryland Food Center, said Phil Gottwals, a consultant and a former county agriculture marketing specialist.

Merchants at the center handle seafood and produce, then ship it throughout the country.

With fewer Howard farmers raising crops for the center's merchants, officials hope that capitalizing on the emerging market for specialty foods could bolster farming here, Gottwals said.

Eventually, local growers, often working on few acres, will be able to package their produce -- exotic mushrooms, for example -- at the center and sell that product to merchants, Gottwals said.

"There's a lot of opportunities for niche products," Gottwals said. "Let's say a guy is looking for horseradish greens. It wouldn't be worth it for him to bring a truckload from California. He'd rather get them locally."

The tour meandered to the farm of former state Sen. James Clark Jr., who raises sheep and beef cattle in Ellicott City.

There, organizers highlighted his efforts to be environmentally sound by creating a buffer of fences, trees and grasses around a stream that winds through his farm.

Clark said the buffer will limit the amount of runoff and cattle waste that flows into Centennial Lake. He said local residents and those in other suburban enclaves must do their part to save the Chesapeake Bay.

"Every house you build, to some extent, damages the bay," he said.

At the Central Maryland Research and Education Center, experts study farming and its impact on the environment.

Benny Erez, a compost program manager, explained to the group how the milking process works and how the center uses water to clean stalls and separate cow dung into fertilizer.

Those who took part in the tour said they gained insights.

fTC Don Stitely, a Howard County budget analyst, said he wanted to better understand the economic effects of farming while learning some of the grittier details.

"Did you ever think a wave of water could move that much manure?" he asked.

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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