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Churchville farmer Lawrason Sayre, left, speaks during a panel discussion at the "Food, Farmers and Community: Opening the Dialogue" symposium at Harford Community College Saturday. He is with Andy Kness of the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension.
Churchville farmer Lawrason Sayre, left, speaks during a panel discussion at the "Food, Farmers and Community: Opening the Dialogue" symposium at Harford Community College Saturday. He is with Andy Kness of the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension. (David Anderson/The Aegis)

Lawrason Sayre has seen many changes over the decades he has been a farmer in Harford County, changes that at times have been controversial, but he stresses that they are necessary as the number of farmers in the U.S. has decreased while the American — and global — population has grown.

“There has been a lot of change — we need it,” Sayre, 91, said during a panel discussion at an inaugural agricultural symposium at Harford Community College Saturday.

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The symposium, called “Food, Farmers and Community: Opening the Dialogue,” was an opportunity for local farmers and representatives of the government agencies and organizations that support them to meet members of the community who are not involved in agriculture.

“The ag industry has gone from what used to be a third of the population or more, down to less than 2 percent of the population feeding twice as many, or three times as many people,” Sayre said.

Sayre grew up on a farm in the Thomas Run area, about 2 miles from HCC’s main Bel Air campus. He noted his family did “all organic farming, not by wish,” and obtained seed corn by shelling ears in the corn crib, producing about 50 bushels an acre.

“Where would we be today if we were still producing 50 bushels an acre?” he asked. “You couldn’t feed half of the people that are in this room.”

The national Future Farmers of America president spent Tuesday morning visiting with students at North Harford Elementary and North Harford High School.

Sayre has owned Waffle Hill Farm in Churchville since 1960, where he and his family raise Angus beef cattle. Those cattle have been grass fed since the 1980s.

“It’s a challenge to educate not only the farmers, but the consumer of what has gone into [producing food],” he said, “and I think this is great to try and pull the two together here.”

The event was sold out, with 150 people in attendance, according to coordinator Sharon Stowers, an HCC professor who is serving as the college’s scholar-in-residence this year.

“People were very engaged and [in] the breakout sessions, asking great questions, a lot of interaction,” Stowers said. “It really lived up to its name of ‘opening the dialogue.’”

The day started with breakfast featuring food from local farms, remarks from state and county leaders, and the unveiling of an interactive GIS map to help Harford residents find farmers near them.

That was followed by breakout sessions on topics such as the importance of preserving local agricultural land, the hidden costs behind “cheap food” and the economic challenges facing farmers who produce that food. They also touched on the benefits of buying from local farmers, such as better health for consumers and sustaining the environment and area economy, plus what is behind concepts such as organic food and genetically modified organisms.

Visitors to the 'Food, Farmers and Community: Opening the Dialogue' agricultural symposium at Harford Community College Saturday were treated to breakfast and lunch featuring food from local farms.
Visitors to the 'Food, Farmers and Community: Opening the Dialogue' agricultural symposium at Harford Community College Saturday were treated to breakfast and lunch featuring food from local farms. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The breakout sessions were followed by lunch and an ice cream social with locally sourced goods and a final panel discussion, of which Sayre was a part.

Also on the panel was Peggy Eppig, director of middle school agriculture and natural resources education with the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation; Allison Jones, whose family owns and operates Jones Family Farm in Edgewood, and Andy Kness, of the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension’s Harford County office.

Kness thanked those who attended the symposium, saying “it shows that you’re taking an interest in where your food’s coming from.”

He said there are “a lot of misconceptions and conflicting information” circulating about farming, and he encouraged people to talk to farmers directly about their concerns, rather than relying on rumors, social media or Google.

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“Any one of these farmers that you met today [would be] absolutely thrilled to talk to you,” Kness said. “They’re people like you and I, and they have the same concerns that you have about the environment, their family, your health.”

He said he works with farmers each day as they adopt new ideas and practices.

“You can feel safe and confident in the products they’re producing, regardless of what it is,” Kness said.

The Jones Family Farm operates produce stands, pick-your-own strawberries, a Community Supported Agriculture service and provides produce for the Harford County Public Schools meals program, as well as a farmers’ market in Baltimore City, according to the farm website.

Allison Jones said she often gets questions about why a customer should buy a $5 watermelon from her family’s farm when they can get it for $1 at a grocery store.

“I always was taught that you get what you pay for, and I think that buying something from a local business is getting you a lot more than just a watermelon — you’re building a relationship with someone,” she said.

Jones said she thinks “buying local is all about community,” and consumers can “put a face to your food” when they purchase goods from an area farmer.

“We’re not trying to rip you off by charging you more money for ground beef or for ice cream,” she said. “We’re just trying to make a living, too.”

Her sister, June Jones, 26, asked panel members why they continue to farm in an environment where people in the industry face criticism for the high cost of produce or using GMOs.

Sayre said “any farmer has to love” what they are doing, since it is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year profession.

“It is by far the greatest place to raise a family and to teach them responsibility and to appreciate God’s creation ... you’re providing a product for the consumer; we go to a lot of effort to produce the best product we can,” he said.

Symposium participant Emma Middleton, 65, of Baltimore, said she is “very interested in food issues.” She works for the HUD field office in the city and gardens as a hobby, with the goal of becoming a master gardener.

Middleton expressed concern about how so many farms in the country are disappearing, and wondered, “if they all disappear, where is our food going to come from?”

Her grandparents farmed along the South Carolina coast. Middleton said her mother turned 100 years old last September and attributes that longevity to growing up on “fresh organic food” living on the farm.

“I feel so much closer to them now,” she said of her grandparents.

Bel Air South resident Pegge Early, who attended with her husband, Mike, thanked several presenters, as well as Stowers, as she was leaving.

“It just gave me, really, more of an appreciation of my Wisconsin relatives,” Early said after the event. “So many of them are farmers out there; I can just more understand the blood, sweat and tears that has gone into their livelihood.”

Mike Early also praised the event, calling it “the education for the non-farmer about the farming business.”

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“A business that is so vital,” Pegge Early added.

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