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Baltimore County squandered $1 million on farm program to feed those in need, county inspector general finds

Baltimore County officials and others break ground in October 2017 on a greenhouse at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville for the the Produce for the People program. The effort to supply food banks and homeless shelters with produce has wasted more than $1 million, according to a new county inspector general's report.
Baltimore County officials and others break ground in October 2017 on a greenhouse at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville for the the Produce for the People program. The effort to supply food banks and homeless shelters with produce has wasted more than $1 million, according to a new county inspector general's report. (Alison Knezevich / Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore County effort to supply food banks and homeless shelters with produce grown at a Cockeysville agriculture center has wasted more than $1 million and yielded a fraction of the expected food, according to a report from the Baltimore County Office of the Inspector General.

Inspector General Kelly Madigan found the county spent more than $634,300 on a 4,600-square-foot greenhouse with a multi-climate HVAC system that was never used for its intended purpose under a program started during late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration. In addition, the county spent even more money on farming equipment that has been used sparingly at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park on Shawan Road.

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County officials heralded the project during a groundbreaking ceremony in 2017, telling reporters at the time the greenhouse would cost $225,000. Madigan’s report included the only bid on the project — submitted three months before the groundbreaking at an estimate of $640,000.

The purpose was to grow seedlings in the greenhouse that would then be planted in the nearby fields, with volunteers doing most of the farming under the direction of the county’s Department of Recreation and Parks. Officials said the program would yield at least 100,000 pounds of produce in its first year, and up to 600,000 pounds annually by its third year of production.

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The program, dubbed Produce for the People, yielded 47,190 pounds of sweet corn, green beans and potatoes in 2017, which was given to the Maryland Food Bank and other food pantries at a cost of more than $21.69 per pound, according to the report.

The actual cost per pound is much higher, Madigan wrote, when factoring in supplies and equipment maintenance-related expenses. By contrast, the county has spent 88 cents per pound to distribute around 10 million meals during the pandemic between March 21 and Dec. 31 last year, she noted.

Since 2018, no greenhouse-grown produce has been donated and the facility “has only been used by the County to grow a relatively small amount of lettuce and tomatoes, none of which was donated, and by the American Chestnut Foundation to grow seedlings,” Madigan wrote.

She also reported farm equipment had been stored improperly without dedicated sites to secure it and that the county did not account for the equipment in its assets inventory.

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Madigan attributed the waste to turnover.

A farmer who was hired part-time to help plant and harvest the produce departed the program in 2019 when his job did not develop into a full-time position. An interim program coordinator with “little farming experience” oversaw the operations from February 2019 to June 2020, Madigan wrote. A new farm manager was hired in July.

“Unfortunately, we inherited a number of issues that date back to the previous Administration,” Stacey Rodgers, county administrative officer, wrote in response to Madigan’s report.

The county is working on a partnership with Baltimore County Public Schools to develop field trips to the greenhouse this fall, Rodgers wrote in a Feb. 8 letter.

She added the county will plant seedlings in the greenhouse this year for the Produce for the People program.

Baltimore County bought the property in 2007 for $3.8 million with local, state and federal funds. The agriculture center has operated since 2010 as a working farm hosting educational and recreational programming.

The county’s Office of the Inspector General was created by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. in 2019 to investigate county government agencies and past practices.

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