Farmers' worries to be aired in report

On The Farm

December 11, 2005|By TED SHELSBY

Farmers are usually tight-lipped, especially when it comes to talking about money.

But they weren't bashful about discussing pocketbook issues this summer when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he wanted to hear suggestions for ways he could promote the long-term viability of farming in Maryland.

When the Agricultural Commission conducted seven listening sessions around the state, farmers turned out in force.

They gave the 24-member group - composed of a cross-section of the farming community and serving as an advisory board to the agriculture secretary and the governor - an earful.

The sessions were designed to flag issues to be put on the table at the Governor's Agriculture Forum Feb. 13 at the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro.

The group's first meeting, in August at the Frederick County Fairground, drew a bigger-then-expected crowd. "There were more pickups on the parking lot than you would expect to see at a Saturday afternoon tractor pull," a commission member said.

Keith Menchey, the assistant secretary of agriculture for policy development, had expected about 50 farmers. More than 100 signed in, and the session had to be moved to a larger room. The response was pretty much the same across the state.

Menchey was working at his home in Baldwin Friday trying to boil down the dozens of concerns expressed by farmers. His plan is to prioritize the concerns and include them in a written report to be presented to the commission at its meeting Wednesday in Annapolis.

"It's not a wish list kind of thing," said Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. "These are pretty much necessities."

Menchey listed a few of the issues to be included in his report, including:

Ways to boost the profitability of farms. One idea is to improve marketing efforts and provide farmers with greater access to markets.

"This involves two levels," Menchey said. "On the macro level, we need to find another grain port for soybeans."

He was referring to a replacement for the port of Baltimore's lone grain elevator, which closed in the summer of 2001 after being damaged by a storm. The loss is costing Central Maryland farmers an estimated $25 million a year in lost revenue.

"On a micro level, it could involve getting more local produce into grocery stores or into school lunch programs," he said.

Grain growers also would like state assistance in establishing a biofuel industry. They would like seed money to help launch the construction of plants to produce a diesel fuel substitute made from soybean oil.

"This would create a new market for soybeans," said Riley. "And anytime you have more than one market the better the price farmers get for their beans."

Changes in the tax code. Farmers would like to have a less expensive way to pass a farm from one generation to another.

"With land values skyrocketing, it is hard to pass a farm on," Menchey said. "On paper, a farmer with 100 acres could be a millionaire. The inheritance tax is so great that some farmers now have to sell the farm to pay the taxes. We need some incentive to help retiring farmers pass their land to younger farmers."

One proposal is to reduce the property tax on land placed in farmland preservation programs.

Stronger right-to-farm laws. One proposal being considered is to require a designation in real estate listings that the land is within an agricultural area.

Farmers have asked that buyers be required to sign an agreement at settlement that they understand they are buying in an agricultural area.

Kitchen-window views of rolling fields of wheat or pastures dotted with Holsteins are popular with homebuyers seeking an escape from city life.

But farms are farms and that means they often spread manure during the growing season.

The smell is the source of many disputes, some making it to the courts. Farmers are asking that complainants pay all legal fees should a case be dismissed.

Although the governor will hear farmers' concerns at the February forum, it is not certain when they might be addressed.

Riley said he thought there would be adequate time after the forum to draft legislation or to alter the governor's budget.

"It probably would have been better to have this work completed earlier, but there will be time for the legislature to address any major issue coming out of the forum," he said.

Menchey said the state's effort is intended to be a long-term project. He said that if there is not time for legislation to be acted upon this year, issues would be presented at future legislative sessions.

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