Driving home link between agriculture and everyday life, one license plate at a time

April 02, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Ask a third-grader where milk comes from and you will likely get the same answer over and over again: "From the grocery store. It comes in plastic bottles."

"I've heard it many, many times," said George Mayo. "Kids across the state don't relate milk to cows or farms. They don't make the connection between agriculture and the clothes they wear, their shoes and the food they eat."

Mayo is out to change that. And that's the thinking behind the colorful license plates, or "ag tags," bearing a farm scene and the slogan, "Our Farms, Our Future."

Mayo is the executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Havre de Grace that was established by the General Assembly in 1989 to educate citizens about the important role agriculture plays in their lives. The foundation is financed by the sale of the tags.

The tags were first unveiled by the Motor Vehicle Administration in November 2003. They began showing up on cars the in July 2004.

Sales exceeded the most optimistic forecast. When the tags were introduced, the foundation predicted sales of 35,000 over the life of the program. As of about the end of January this year, sales topped 130,000.

Sales are still running between 1,200 and 1,300 tags a month, Mayo said.

With renewal fees, the tags have generated slightly more than $2 million in revenue for the foundation. Motorists wanting the tag will have to pay $20 more than the normal vehicle registration fee, according to Buel Young, a spokesman for the state Motor Vehicle Administration. He said there is also a $5-per-year renewal fee on the tags.

"The bulk of the sales are to drivers who don't recognize that the tags are in support of agriculture," said Mayo. "They just think they are pretty. People like the colors."

The money is used in several ways, including paying for trailers converted into mobile science labs that take the agriculture message to schools across Maryland.

"Kids find it exciting," said Mayo. "It's not the normal classroom setting. It is more like a field trip for them."

The labs usually park at a school for a week, conducting six periods a day and averaging 25 students a class. They visit between 70 and 80 schools a year, attracting about 60,000 students annually.

"There is a lot of hands-on activity," said Mayo.

Students have made butter from cream. They have used soybeans to make crayons. They make cheese from milk. They are taught the importance of water quality and why it is harmful to put oil or other chemicals into the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries.

A popular feature used at visits to urban schools is a video/DVD production called Take Me Out to the Cornfield.

"It uses a professional baseball analogy to show that without agriculture there would be no bats, no balls, no gloves, no grass, no sodas, no hotdogs or popcorn," said Mayo. "It gets the kids thinking about the importance of agriculture in their lives."

Some have criticized the ag tag program, saying it pushes the envelope to call Maryland a farm state.

Mayo disagrees.

"Agriculture is still a $17 billion a year business in Maryland," he said. "It is still considered Maryland's No. 1 industry. Everybody in the state depends on agriculture to some degree. Agriculture is responsible for the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and it a major factor in the clean air we breath and the open spaces in the country we all enjoy."

China trip

A group of 25 state farmers, agribusiness officials and a state legislator will travel to China next month to learn firsthand about agriculture in another part of the world.

The trip is sponsored by the LEAD Maryland Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to identifying and developing future leaders for the state's agriculture industry and rural communities.

The foundation awards two-year fellowships to men and women in agriculture-related fields who have demonstrated leadership ability.

Kenny Bounds, president of the foundation and a vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, said the purpose of the trip is to "expose our fellows to a different culture, to a different type of agriculture, and different leadership skills."

"I think the major thing we will accomplish is an appreciation of the way other countries do things and their way of life," said Bounds. "China is becoming a major player in the import and export of agriculture products."

This is the foundation's fourth class.

Other fellow classes have gone to the Netherlands, Cuba and Brazil.

Half of the current class is composed of people involved in the production of field crops, milk or livestock.

Others come from a bank specializing in farm loans, county planning office people and rural economic development officials.

During the 12-day trip, fellows are scheduled to visit a variety of agriculture-related operations including a grocery in Beijing, a silk market and a dairy farm. Plans call for a meeting with officials of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and attending an American embassy briefing.

There will be side trips to the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

The lawmaker making the trip is J.B. Jennings, a Republican representing portions of Baltimore and Harford counties.

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