Behind 'sleazy' deal, a good idea about food

“Sleazy” in appearance, substance of Eastern Shore land deal might taste better.

Lost in the buzz about political influence in the Wick Farm deal — the O'Malley administration's plan to buy the place for $2.8 million and lease it for $1 a year to an organic farmer who donates generously to Democratic campaigns — was a good idea: Marylanders growing, harvesting and selling food to Marylanders.

That might not sound original. But when you consider that a small percentage of what we eat comes from the state in which we live, then Cleo Braver's idea for a food hub on the Eastern Shore and more local farming to keep home-grown produce moving through it sounds downright pioneering.

It deserves a hearing. It deserves some state support.

First, let me recap what happened in the Wick Farm deal. As The Baltimore Sun's Michael Dresser reported last week, the state was prepared to buy the 255-acre Kent County farm, then lease it for a buck to a nonprofit company that Braver runs.

Braver is an attorney-turned-farmer. She has given $40,000 in donations to Democratic campaign committees over the last decade, including $6,000 to Anthony Brown's losing quest for governor this year.

That hardly makes her a heavy hitter, but it's certainly enough green to raise questions about the O'Malley administration's plan for the Wick Farm. Peter Franchot, the state comptroller and the man who put the ding in grandstanding, called the proposed lease "sleazy."

He did this at the state Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis last week, with O'Malley sitting there, looking all distant and glum and I-can't-wait-to-get-outta-here.

So, with questions raised about Braver's connections to O'Malley and the Democrats, the state pulled the lease deal off the table. (The purchase of the Wick property went through, however.)

While Dresser was reporting this story, he tried to contact Braver for comment, but she declined.

I reached her by telephone Sunday and asked why she had not spoken to the reporter. Declining to comment on a story that suggests political favoritism never improves anyone's position in the public eye. "I was busy," Braver said. "[Dresser] had a deadline, and I had a deadline, and I just didn't have time to talk to him."

That struck me as lame, but I'll say what lawyers always say when they want to move on: Be that as it may.

Be that as it may, there's a good idea here — albeit obscured by smelly, smoky party politics.

Separate from the Wick Farm deal, Braver wants to lease land from the town of Easton, in Talbot County, and build a large warehouse-style building where Eastern Shore farmers can bring their fruits, vegetables and meats to be distributed and sold throughout the region. She also wants to create an apprenticeship program for new farmers who will grow things people eat.

Right now, of course, that kind of farming — farmers' market farming — is dwarfed by the soy, corn and wheat farming that goes on here, along with dairy and Big Chicken.

Braver, an organic farmer, thinks we need to move to real-food farming for a bunch of good reasons: Fresh, local food is healthier, in part because it doesn't have to travel as far to market; it doesn't require as much fossil fuel to ship. We could put more Marylanders to work growing our own, right in our own backyard, and eventually become more "food secure" — that is, less reliant on produce or protein grown or raised hundreds of miles away.

"Currently, just 3 percent of the country's farmland is used to grow and harvest fruit and vegetable crops," Braver says, "And it's less than 2.5 percent in Maryland. We are not creating our own food. We want to expand real-food production on the Eastern Shore."

It's already happening elsewhere. Other parts of the country have charted out "food sheds," marking off a range of 100 to 200 miles and vowing to increase the public's access to food grown and harvested within that region. It's happening in northern Ohio, Braver notes, and in Illinois and in Michigan. It should be happening in Maryland, she says, because Marylanders could grow more food not only for ourselves but for consumers throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

"Delmarva represents the largest single land mass on the Eastern seaboard that can be used for food production," she says. "There are 40 million people within 200 miles of Easton, and 14 million within 100 miles." She notes that Columbia University's Earth Institute recognizes Delmarva as a source of New York City's future food supply, and how do you like them apples?

Braver's plan raises a lot of possibilities, including new jobs for the Eastern Shore. Easton could become a hub for the farm-to-table movement, a real player in the rebirth of market agriculture and a new generation of farmers.

This is a good idea, worthy of some government support. It stands on its merits, with no need for any political sleight of hand. Once the smell and smoke clear, I hope Braver, or somebody with this idea, prevails.


Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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