Don't let panel's report sit on the shelf, farmers say


November 26, 2006|By Ted Shelsby

For 15 months, a panel studied Maryland farming and looked for ways to keep it viable and profitable.

The Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 28-member group composed of a cross section of farming, interviewed more than 600 farmers and agricultural and conservation leaders during seven sessions held across the state.

In August, the commission presented a list of recommendations to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during a Cabinet meeting in Salisbury. There were concerns among some farmers and even some commission members, that the 42-page report, "A Statewide Plan for Agricultural Policy and Resource Management," would take its place with earlier efforts - on a shelf collecting dust.

But there have been some encouraging signs that that will not be the case this time.

The outgoing administration has taken preliminary steps to address the report's findings, and Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has pledged to pick up where Ehrlich leaves off.

"Governor O'Malley will be looking at the report and seeing what we can implement," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley.

O'Malley recognizes the importance and long history of farming in Maryland "and wants to support farmers to help make them successful and profitable," Guillory said.

State economic officials consider agriculture Maryland's largest industry. When all phases of the production and distribution of food are considered, farming is a $17 billion-a-year business, employing about 64,000 workers, according to state measures.

In its report, the Agricultural Commission concluded that the No. 1 concern is farm profitability. Other overarching issues were ensuring an adequate base of agricultural land, and advance research, education and the advocacy of agriculture.

"We have already moved on a number of fronts to address the report's recommendations," said Keith Menchey, assistant secretary for policy development at the state Agriculture Department.

These measures include:

The establishment of the Incentives for Agriculture Task Force, charged with evaluating the impact of the state's tax structure on agriculture.

The formation of the Intergovernmental Commission on Agriculture. The commission is composed of representatives of government agencies and charged with ensuring that state agencies work in cooperation with local government and industry groups to implement farming initiatives.

The creation of the Maryland Dairy Industry Advisory Council, which is charged with looking for ways to boost the viability of dairy farms, which have been going out of business at an alarming rate the past decade.

Funding for the Maryland Agricultural & Resource Based Industry Development Corp., an economic development organization designed to help farmers and those in forestry and seafood obtain development assistance.

The designation of an agricultural ombudsman at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to help farmers deal with the regulatory agency.

During their meetings with farmers, members of the Agricultural Commission, which is an advisory group to Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley and the governor, came up with more than 100 recommendations.

Farmers would also like to see the University of Maryland's soil testing program reopened and fully funded.

They would like to see their health insurance costs reduced, the hunting seasons for deer and geese extended and zoning regulations changed to allow for alternative agricultural uses.

"Farmers were insistent that we not let this report sit on a shelf and get dusty," Menchey said. "We are determined not to let that happen."

Public's help asked

The state Agriculture Department is asking for public assistance in its battle against an ash tree-killing beetle. Two meetings have been scheduled in Prince George's County to brief residents on the emerald ash borer situation and what can be done to prevent the beetle's spread.

The emerald ash borer was detected near Brandywine and Clinton in August. It has blamed for the destruction of 25 million ash trees.

The first meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the library of Fredrick Douglass High School, 800 Croom Road in Upper Marlboro. A second session is slated for 7 p.m. Dec. 7 in the cafeteria of the Surrattsville High School, 6101 Garden Drive in Clinton.

A department quarantine prohibmoving hardwood, firewood or any other ash tree materials out of Prince George's County.

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