Agriculture secretary says he's ready to retire

December 02, 2006|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Special to The Sun

Lewis R. Riley, the Eastern Shore chicken farmer who served three governors as agriculture secretary, is expected to announce his retirement Tuesday during the Maryland Farm Bureau's convention in Ocean City.

"I've really enjoyed the job, but it's time for a younger person to take over," said Riley, who turns 72 in February. "It's time for me to hang it up. I had planned to do this, no matter the outcome of the election," Riley said during a recent telephone interview.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Riley, a Republican, to the agriculture post in 1994, and he stayed on during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.

The Glendening years were the most difficult, said Riley, because he and the governor did not see eye to eye on what farmers called the wave of "Pfiesteria hysteria" that swept the state in 1997.

Runoff of nutrients from manure used as fertilizer was blamed for the fish kills that closed parts of three rivers to recreational use, triggered concern over the safety of Maryland seafood and disrupted tourism.

"Farmers were hit with a lot of undue criticism," Riley said recently. "To this day, there is no scientific proof that farmers caused the problem."

When Riley resigned in December 1997, there was speculation that it was because of his disagreement with Glendening over regulations placed on farmers.

Riley said he quit to spend more time with this wife, Ginny, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

By the time Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asked him to join his Cabinet, Riley said his wife could no longer do the simple things they enjoyed, such as traveling, going out to dinner or attending a Shorebirds baseball game. At the encouragement of his family, he accepted Ehrlich's offer.

While serving under Ehrlich, Riley helped improve relations between farmers and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which acknowledges that farms are less responsible for bay pollution than residential development.

Looking back on a 44-year career in public service, Riley said, "I never dreamed I would go this far in life. I didn't go to college. When I didn't get a scholarship, I couldn't afford it. The guiding light throughout my career has been good common sense."

Riley grew up on a farm outside rural Parsonsburg in Wicomico County. He became interested in politics when he was 27.

"Back then, the town of Salisbury controlled the county elections," he said. "If you were a farmer or lived in a rural area, you didn't have much to say."

He helped change that when he was elected a county commissioner in 1966, giving the Republicans control of the board for the first time in history. He served 12 years with the board and 13 in the General Assembly.

As for the future, Riley said he would stay on until a new secretary is appointed. That's when he will return to the family farm, now operated by his son, Quint.

"Quint will be the decision maker," he said.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's transition team, said it is too soon to speculate on who will be named the new agriculture secretary.

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