Ehrlich administration gives farmers the boost they didn't get from General Assembly


July 16, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Maryland agriculture received the second show of support from state government in as many weeks, when the Ehrlich administration announced Monday the creation of a panel aimed at helping the dairy farm industry, a segment that has been shrinking rapidly in recent years.

Achieving by executive order what state legislators could not accomplish during the General Assembly session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. established the Maryland Dairy Industry Advisory Council and charged it with looking for ways to boost the viability of dairy farms.

"This will be the voice of the industry," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said of the new advisory council.

At the rate Maryland has been losing dairy farms, the sight of Holsteins grazing on a green pasture could be a rarity in the near future. Dairy farms have been going out of business in Maryland at a pace nearly twice the rate seen in the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In rough numbers, Maryland had about 4,000 dairy farms in 1970. That number dropped to 3,000 in 1980, 2,000 by 1990 and about 1,000 at the turn of the century.

Today, there are fewer than 650 dairy farms in Maryland.

The new council comes after the creation of a commission intended to support the broader farming industry by improving coordination among government agencies and agriculture groups.

The Intergovernmental Commission on Agriculture, also established recently by an executive order by the governor, is to be made up of members of farm organizations and government agencies, as well as residents. The commission will be charged with ensuring that state agencies work in cooperation with local governments and industry groups in planning and implementing governmental farming initiatives.

The new dairy council replaces the Dairy Regulatory Review Committee, which was established in May 2005. Riley and Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary S. Anthony McCann headed that committee, and though the two Cabinet secretaries have not always agreed on issues of milk production, processing and distribution, they pledged to work with industry officials to determine whether regulatory reform was needed to stave off the death of Maryland's dairy industry.

"Now when there's a problem in the industry, we know who to go to in seeking a correction," Riley said of the council, which is expected to be up and running in about two months.

The governor's action makes the council a part of state law and achieves what the General Assembly failed to accomplish this year.

"The dairy bill got caught behind the electric rate utility bill legislation on the last day [of the legislative session] and failed to make it to the Senate floor," said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, a lobbying group representing 25,000 farm families. "We planned to put another bill in next year, but the governor's action eliminates that need."

Connelly said the council's work will include determining whether other states are doing things Maryland could do to help farmers.

Among the issues dairy farmers would like to see addressed is having the inspection of dairy farms transferred from the state health department to the agriculture department, as is the practice in Pennsylvania, said Robert Ramsburg, former president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association. Supporters of that idea have long said that the Agriculture Department is a more user-friendly agency that is more closely linked to the business of farming.

Opponents of the idea, including milk processors, have expressed concern that such a switch could shake consumer confidence in the quality of milk produced in Maryland.

Ramsburg said he hopes the council also considers the transportation of milk from farms to processing plants. Maryland law does not allow milk trucks to carry as much milk as they can carry in Pennsylvania, which could discourage haulers from serving farms in Maryland, he said.

Riley said that while the dairy industry has been in decline in recent decades, it remains the third-largest agriculture sector in the state, behind poultry and greenhouse/nursery operations.

"It is still a big business in Maryland, and we want to keep it that way," he said.

Crop insurance

This is the time of the year when farmers usually worry about the impact of drought and high temperatures on their crops.

But it's just the opposite this year - they are concerned about too much rain.

Heavy precipitation last month may have benefited the corn crop, but it was detrimental to soybeans and all but wiped out the cucumber and watermelon harvests.

In response, state agriculture officials are reminding farmers that federal crop insurance policies cover some crops damaged by rain just as they would if there were a drought. Unfortunately, cucumbers and watermelons are not covered, said Mark Powell of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Powell said the following tips are designed to help farmers get the most out of their crop insurance policies:

If you plan to plow under a crop, have an adjustor evaluate the fields before plowing. Do not destroy evidence of damage until a loss adjustor evaluates the extent of damage.

If the crop is going to be harvested, call your insurance agent and make a report documenting yield at harvest.

The state agriculture department works with the USDA to provide information on crop insurance. For information, call Gene Gantz at the USDA, 717-497-6398, or Powell at 410-841-5775.

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