Nominee for agriculture secretary brings experience from family farm


February 18, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

If the state Senate confirms his appointment tomorrow, Maryland's new agriculture secretary will bring to the job the experience of running a family farm that traces its roots back before the Revolutionary War.

"I've been a lifelong farmer; my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather were farmers," Roger L. Richardson said in one of his first interviews since Gov. Martin O'Malley named him to the post. "We still farm the 60 acres that came into our family in 1767."

It is his knowledge and understanding of agriculture, stemming from such a long tradition, along with a love of farming, that the 72-year-old Richardson lists as the major attributes he brings to his new job.

His aim, he said, "is to continue the successful initiatives" of his predecessor, Lewis R. Riley, who served as agriculture secretary under three governors before resigning this month.

"Lou was a great secretary," Richardson said. "I was asked during the governor's interviewing process if I could improve on the department. I said I would be fortunate if I could maintain it."

Richardson has taken on the challenges of finding ways to make farming more profitable, to stem the loss of farmland, to halt the continuing decline of the state's dairy industry and to improve the environment.

He thinks farmers were unjustly blamed for the 1997 outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida and wants to work closely with environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, on ways to protect the environment.

Pfiesteria caused fish kills in three rivers flowing into the bay. It closed portions of those rivers to recreational use, caused human illness, triggered alarm about the safety of Maryland seafood and knocked the tourism industry for a loop.

It was blamed on the runoff of excess nutrients from farms.

"Farmers were blamed for the problem, and that was unjust," he said. "There was never proof they contributed to the problem."

Richardson said he has met with Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and discussed ways to protect the bay and improve the environment.

The agriculture department and the foundation have traditionally been on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to environmental issues. But that relationship has changed in recent years.

The foundation has recognized the importance of farms in protecting the environment and has worked closely with the agriculture department on ways to protect both.

"I want to improve on that relationship with the bay foundation," Richardson said. "Farmers were the first environmentalists. The land is all that farmers have. If they don't take care of it, the land will be useless."

The farmland would also be useless if it can't produce a profit.

Richardson, of Wicomico County, said he would be looking for ways to make farms more viable.

"If we can make farming more profitable, maybe we can get our young people back to the farm," he said. "So many of them left the farm because they could make a better living elsewhere."

In the case of the dairy industry, there might be no farm to lure young people. Maryland has lost about 30 percent of its dairy farms over the past two decades as a result of low milk prices.

"The dairy industry definitely needs help," Richardson said. "Their cost of production is equal to their selling price. You can't stay in business that way."

Asked about the future of agriculture in Maryland, Richardson replied: "The future is great if we can make it profitable. But if farmers can't make a profit, the land will go to other uses. Profit is what makes the world go around. It keeps farmers farming."

Hance in state post

Earl "Buddy" Hance, a former tobacco farmer who can also trace his family's involvement in agriculture to Colonial days, has been named deputy secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

Hance, 51, most recently served as president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, chairman of the Maryland State Tobacco Authority and as chairman of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Commission.

"Few people have the combined knowledge of agricultural and environmental policy, rural development, and running a successful farm business in today's economy than Buddy Hance," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement announcing the appointment.

Hance, who operates a 400-acre grain and greenhouse farm near Port Republic, said he looks "forward to raising the awareness about the importance of agriculture to all Marylanders and to collaborate on ways to strengthen it."

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