Maryland's farmers prepare for leadership

Seminars provide `reality check' with global perspective

January 21, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's young farmers come into their own, the state's agricultural community has developed a program to prepare them for leadership in an increasingly global business.

The first group of 23 adult students enrolled in LEAD Maryland will conclude a three-day seminar in New Windsor today. It was their fifth of eight such seminars over the past two years.

The seminars take them around the state to see its diverse agricultural enterprises. This summer, they will travel to the Netherlands and Belgium, to see how European farmers deal with issues that loom large in Maryland, such as the management of manure and fertilizer.

"This is a reality check," said Donna Mennito, a former Carroll County and Howard County planner who works for the American Farmland Trust. She said she enrolled in the course to expand her perspective, which mostly was that of a suburban professional.

The class has about a dozen farmers, along with others including an extension agent, the editor of a farming newspaper and a farm-lending specialist. The average age of the participants is 35.

Farmers such as Dave Arnold, who grows vegetables in Chestertown, see the course as a chance to find out how best to heighten the country's awareness of where its food comes from.

Professionals who are not farmers, but for whom farming is central to their work, see it as a way of deepening their perspective and contacts.

LEAD Maryland charges students $1,800 each, said director Susan Harrison. The program is funded through contributions and sponsorships by agencies and organizations such as the Maryland Farm Bureau, Maryland Department of Agriculture, Maryland Grain Producers Association and others.

Similar programs have been successful in California, the Midwest and South, Harrison said. A few years ago, Maryland Farm Bureau President Stephen Weber returned from a National Farm Bureau conference at which he became familiar with programs in other states, and he worked with agricultural leaders to start one here.

This week's seminar was held at Brethren Service Center in New Windsor and focused on land use. The class also toured farms in Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties by bus yesterday.

Going to Europe

In Europe, Harrison said, students will look at ways that farmers deal with managing nutrient runoff from manure and fertilizer. It's an issue farmers in Maryland will face in the next few years, with proposed state regulations that would be the most stringent in the country.

Mennito, in addition to being a student, was a guest speaker for a seminar Wednesday on agricultural preservation programs nationwide. She said the state's Agricultural Preservation Program is a leader in the country, protecting land by buying from farmers easements that prevent development.

"Maryland has been doing this longer than anyone," said Mennito. "Other states use Maryland as a model."

Such easements limit the short-term value of the land, but in the long run could make it more valuable, she said. "Like Central Park in New York City, as the land is more rare, its value will increase," she said.

Preservation easements

While other tools exist for preserving agricultural land, easements are the most lasting, Mennito said. They are often referred to as "permanent," although future generations could choose to use legislative tools to reverse them, Mennito said.

"How permanent is permanent?" asked Mark Powell, editor of the Delmarva Farmer.

Mennito said Maryland has an escape clause that allows farmers to petition to have the land taken out of protection, but only after at least 25 years, and they must show that the land is no longer appropriate for farming.

She said agricultural preservation movements across the country are looking at ways to preserve the viability of farms and farmers, not just the land.

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