MARYLAND farmers, who have complained for years, if not decades, that their voices are not being heard in Annapolis, are turning out in large numbers at state-sponsored "listening sessions," where they finally get a chance to have their say.
"Farmers are turning out in greater numbers than we expected," said Keith Menchey, assistant secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.
The meetings are part of a planned agricultural forum scheduled for Feb. 13 at the Prince George's County Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro.
In announcing the program this year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said: "The goal of the forum is to consider all sectors of Maryland's production agriculture, identifying overreaching issues, and to construct recommendations that will continue to grow and promote agriculture in Maryland."
State Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley probably said it better: "We want to find ways to make farming more profitable."
The forum is being directed by the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 24-member group representing a cross-section of farming that serves as an advisory board to the agriculture secretary and the governor.
The commission scheduled seven listening sessions around the state this month to gather input from the farming community.
"So far, every session has been a complete success," Menchey said at Wednesday's regular monthly meeting of the commission.
The first session was in Frederick, and organizers expected 50 farmers, at most, to attend. When 115 showed up, "we had to move the session to another building."
Now that they have the ear of government, farmers are not shy about voicing their concerns.
Their top issues, based on the response from the first four sessions, are land availability, access to markets and the transition of farms from one generation to another, Menchey said.
Doug Green, chairman of the Agricultural Commission, said issues vary in different parts of the state.
In Fredrick, he said, farmers expressed a concern about deer damaging their crops. Menchey acknowledged that deer could destroy up to one-third of the corn crop in certain areas.
Other issues raised by farmers include:
The need for a facility to replace the port of Baltimore's lone grain elevator, which closed in the summer of 2001 after being damaged by a storm. The lack of such a facility is costing farmers $25 million a year in lost revenue, according to a study by the University of Maryland.
Development of new markets for locally produced agriculture products.
A need to address immigration laws and issues to ensure a stable and reliable force of farm workers.
A need for an educational campaign that explains modern agriculture to the non-farming public so that they better understand the challenges facing farmers and are aware of the contribution agriculture makes in Maryland.
A need for additional state and county money for farmland preservation programs.
A need to address the high cost of farmland and ways to help young farmers obtain land.
A need to examine additional ways to lower taxes paid by Maryland farmers to make them more competitive with farms in other states.
Establishment of additional food processing facilities for dairy and livestock operations.
Development of an ethanol production plant.
Green encouraged commission members to attend the three remaining sessions, but urged them to refrain from participating in the discussions. He said it was their chance to listen.
"It's the farmers that we want to hear from," he said.
The remaining sessions all start at 7 p.m. The first is tomorrow at the Wicomico County Rockawalkin Community Hall in Hebron.
The next session will be held Aug. 24 at the Queen Anne's 4-H park in Grasonville. The final session will be Aug. 29 at the Calvert County Fairgrounds in Prince Frederick.