Riley helped restore respect to Maryland agriculture


January 14, 2007|By TED SHELSBY

He stands 5-feet-7 and wouldn't top 170 pounds unless he was holding an "oven stuffer" roast chicken.

Yet Lewis R. Riley, the soft-spoken Eastern Shore poultry farmer turned state agriculture secretary, is viewed as a giant by many in Maryland farming, the state's largest industry.

Riley, 71, who served as secretary under three governors, recently announced his retirement and is expected to leave office this week.

When Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers, said, "He will be missed," she echoed the thoughts of farmers throughout the state.

"Farmers think the world of him," said Hoot. "He was the guy who came to their defense after they were beaten down by [Gov. Parris N.] Glendening and made to feel they were the roots of all environmental evils."

As secretary, Riley forged a new relationship with an old adversary -- the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Now, the environmental group praises farmers as stewards of the land.

"Given a choice between an acre of farmland and an acre of residential development, the best thing for the bay is farmland, without a doubt," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Riley helped heal the rift between state government and farmers by ushering in more user-friendly farm nutrient management regulations designed to reduce pollution of the bay.

Riley oversaw a 15-month study on the future of farming in Maryland last year that recommends more than 100 ways to make farms more viable.

He is also credited with giving farmers "a place at the table" in Annapolis whenever agriculture issues were discussed.

Still, there are major challenges ahead for his successor, who has not been named.

"Maryland, like other Northeast states, is fast becoming more urban," Riley said during an interview at his farm near this rural Wicomico County hamlet.

As a result, farmers and farmland are disappearing at a rate more than double that of the nation as a whole.

The next agriculture secretary "will need to find ways to help farmers stay in farming," Riley said, and make government and citizens aware of its importance to the state's economy. Retaining farms and farmland is a challenging assignment, for which Riley offered a simple solution.

"The best ag land preservation program is a profitable farm," he has said many times over the years.

That wasn't always the perception.

"A few years ago, farmers were viewed only as someone who destroyed our water and our quality of life," he said. "Nobody seemed to consider their contributions to our economy."

Riley has had quite a run in public service. His resignation marks the end of a nearly 45-year career during which he also served two terms each in the House of Delegates and the Senate. He was elected to the Wicomico County Council when he was 27.

His political career hatched from frustration with trying to get the county to repair the ruts and gullies in Parsonsburg Road in front of his home.

"At that time, commissioners were elected by an at-large vote, and the town of Salisbury, which had about a third of all voters, controlled the elections," he said. "If you were a farmer or lived in rural areas, you didn't have much say back then."

Riley set out to change that.

"I remember handing out pencils with the message printed on them: `Wicomico County needs rural representation.' "

His message failed to catch on.

"I got about 6,000 votes, but that was 351 short of winning," he said.

Four years later, Riley's theme hit home. The polling place parking lots were filled with pickup trucks on election night. When the count was completed, Riley was the top vote-getter, and Wicomico had its first Republican-controlled government.

He served 12 years on the council before he moved to the State House. He was first appointed agriculture secretary by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Perhaps the most difficult part of his career dates to the summer 1997, when fish kills in three Eastern Shore rivers closed portions of the waterways to recreational use, disrupted the state tourism industry and triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood.

"I was in a tough spot," Riley said, explaining that Gov. Parris N. Glendening was blaming the runoff of nutrients from farm fields for the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida.

But there was no proof of this, according to Riley, who wanted any new farm regulations based on research.

Glendening disagreed. The resulting regulations of the Water Quality Improvement Act were not popular with farmers. Some farmers insisted that they would go to jail before being forced to adopt the regulations.

Riley left office in the heat of this battle. But his departure had nothing to do with Pfiesteria. His wife, Virginia, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he said.

"I wanted to share as many good times with her as I could during the time we had left," Riley said.

Farmers viewed Riley's conflict with Glendening as an example of him standing up for them.

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