The most effective tool for preserving land is a profitable farm, commission finds

ON THE FARM

June 18, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

After 15 months of studying the pressures that threaten the viability and future of farming in Maryland, the state Agricultural Commission agrees with Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley, who said: "The best agricultural land preservation program is a profitable farm."

In its 42-page report - "A Statewide Plan for Agricultural Policy and Resource Management" - the commission concluded that the No. 1 concern when it comes to sustaining agriculture in the state was farm profitability.

The other overarching issues identified by the commission were: ensuring an adequate base of agriculture land and advance research, education and the advocacy of agriculture.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. initiated the study in February 2005 when he asked Riley for policy recommendations needed to protect the state's largest industry.

State officials said that agriculture, including all phases of the production and distribution of food and fiber, is a $17 billion-a-year business in Maryland, employing about 64,000 workers.

Riley delegated the governor's request to the Agricultural Commission, a 28-member panel composed of a cross-section of farming.

Among the commission's policy recommendations:

Focus business development initiatives to attract, retain and expand primary processing and production operations, as well as export facilities, for Maryland-grown products.

Advance bio-energy production and its use. This includes a statewide initiative to blend 2 percent biodiesel into the diesel fuel supply.

Develop and implement a marketing and branding initiative for state farm products. The commission would like to see the state develop a "buy local" promotion campaign and help farmers get more crops on grocery store shelves.

Treat farms like other businesses by providing financial programs, including grants, to help them expand and move into new lines of production.

Develop and implement ways to reduce health and crop insurance costs for agricultural businesses and farm families.

Increase the availability of farm labor and reduce its cost.

Reduce the impact of wildlife on agriculture by extending the deer- and goose-hunting seasons.

Encourage counties to provide tax relief for agriculture.

Provide sufficient funding so the state can obtain its stated farmland preservation goal of 1.03 million acres by 2022.

Strengthen state right-to-farm laws by creating a deterrent to frivolous and nuisance lawsuits against farms.

Promote forestry as a viable economic option for farmers.

Encourage the University of Maryland's cooperative extension service to boost its assistance to production agriculture. Farmers would also like the state to fund and reopen the university's soil-testing program.

Support a reduction in the capital gains tax rate and establish a funding plan to help farms transition to the next generation of farmers.

Develop a public relations campaign to increase the public's understanding of agriculture.

Provide funding to promote agricultural education in the school system.

After being handed a copy of the report, Riley told commission members that he would implement the plan "to the greatest extent possible."

Riley said he valued the opinions of the commission members and that the governor was pleased with their effort.

Unlike what has happened with previous studies on the future of agriculture in the state, Riley assured commission members that they would not come back in five years and find the new report in a back closet collecting dust.

"This is a good start," said Earl "Buddy" Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

He praised the commission for its effort, but said, "The important thing now is to see what is done with the report.

"Farmers always have problems getting funding for their programs out of Annapolis," Hance said. "My hope is that funding will be available to implement some of these recommendations."

Hance declined to identify key issues of the report.

"It's all important," he said. "If something can be done to increase the profitability of farming, that would be very important to us. It is important to help the future generation of farmers. It's all important."

Robert S. Ramsburg, a Frederick County dairy farmer and president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, said that if the plan "boosts agriculture in the state, it will benefit dairy farmers."

Like Hance, he is concerned about what happens next.

"The University of Maryland did a similar study in 2002 and it's sitting on some shelf," Ramsburg said. "They did a lot of good research, but nothing was done. The report is collecting dust."

Douglas W. Green, chairman of the Agricultural Commission, said, "implementation of the plan will be an ongoing process. This is a long-term, 10-year project."

Commission seats

There are five openings on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 28-member farm board representing a cross-section of farming. It serves as an advisory group to the state secretary of agriculture.

The positions offer the possibility of catching the ear of top state officials.

Take, for example, the case of former commission member Russell Watson, the operator of a nursery in Prince George's County. In 2000, he used his position on the commission to criticize Gov. Parris N. Glendening for blaming farms for the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in Maryland waters during the summer of 1997.

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