Maryland agriculture, like the state itself, can be considered America in miniature


November 19, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

In Iowa, the cornfields seem to stretch forever. In Kansas, wheat spreads out as far as the eye can see. Until you reach Goodland, that is, where a 24-by-32-foot reproduction of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" painting rests on an 80-foot easel surrounded by a sea of sunflowers.

The sunflowers and that painting along Interstate 70 in northwestern Kansas got me thinking about how Maryland fits in the national farm picture.

I recalled the sunflower fields near Pylesville in northern Harford County, as well as the corn, soybean and wheat fields across the state and concluded that whoever first said that Maryland was America in miniature must have been talking about agriculture.

Some other observations, as I drove out West recently to get a better understanding of farming and Maryland's role in the industry:

Iowa has more land in soybeans -- nearly five times as much -- as Maryland has total farmland.

Farmers in Sumner County, Kan., produce more wheat than is grown in Maryland.

Cattle sales in Texas last year totaled $7.6 billion, compared with sales of $73.6 million in Maryland.

Georgia farmers sell about 4.5 times as many chickens each year as Eastern Shore broiler farmers.

On average, farms in California are more than twice the size of farms here.

Apple sales in Washington state last year were slightly less than total sales of all farm commodities in Maryland.

While Maryland presents a composite of farming across the country, it perhaps most closely resembles California, said Ken Bounds, a vice president of Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit, Maryland's largest agriculture lender.

"Like California, we have a lot of diversity in our agriculture, and that's a good thing," Bounds said. "We have grain farms; we have vegetable farms, dairy, beef cattle, hogs, eggs, the green house/nursery business and a big broiler industry."

Maryland's agricultural diversity is of one its strengths, said S. Patrick McMillan, assistant secretary at the state Department of Agriculture.

"It's not good to have all of your eggs in one basket," McMillan said. "It is like putting all your money in one steel company. If the company's stock does well, you will do well. But if the stock does poorly, you are in trouble."

Poultry is the largest single sector of Maryland's farming industry, accounting for about one-third of the state's cash receipts (sales at the farm level) last year.

Compare that with Kansas, where sales of cattle and calves accounted for 61 percent of total farm sales last year, according to agriculture officials in that state.

That scenario would make Bounds a bit nervous.

"As a lender, we feel more comfortable if farming is more diversified," the banker said. "The industry would be in a better position to cope with a downturn in any one sector of the business. It is always better to spread the risk."

In Iowa, corn and soybeans account for 40 percent of farm sales. Adding hogs to the mix pushes that figure to about 50 percent of total sales.

One big advantage that Maryland has over the Midwest is that farms here are closer to population centers, McMillan pointed out. For example, the bulk of the chicken produced in the Delmarva region ends up in supermarkets in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

It is difficult for Midwest farmers to raise chickens when they are so far from the people who will consume them.

"The transportation costs would eat up any profit," McMillan said.

The high cost of land in Maryland also affects farm production.

"We are seeing more value-added operations here than in other parts of the country," McMillan said "Farmers are using their milk to make ice cream, because ice cream is more profitable."

Much of the acreage used for growing grain in Maryland is rented because of the high land costs.

To help offset those costs, many fruit and vegetable growers in the state are selling directly to the consumer to boost their earnings, McMillan said.

"Apple growers in Maryland have a hard time competing with growers in other parts of the country and China," said McMillan.

"That's why they gave gotten out of the wholesale business and are selling directly to consumers," he said.

Peach growers are following the lead of apple growers.

"We grow a fabulous peach in Maryland," McMillan said. "When it comes to taste, there is nothing like a tree-ripened peach, but they are too soft to ship halfway around the world."

Most of the people who grow peaches have moved into the retail market to take advantage of being close to the market.

"It's that closeness to major markets and our diversity of products that gives Maryland farms an advantage," McMillan said.

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