Howard County farmers shared their thoughts on the state of agriculture in the county today -- and their predictions for the future -- at a roundtable Wednesday morning with County Executive Allan Kittleman.
Kittleman organized the discussion, held at TLV Tree Farm in Glenelg, to gather ideas on how a reorganized county sustainability office can support the needs of the local agricultural community.
Kittleman announced plans to restructure the Office of Environmental Sustainability -- the first of its kind in Maryland when former County Executive Ken Ulman and the County Council created it in 2008 -- in December. His intent is for the new office, which will be called the Office of Community Sustainability, to focus not only on the environment but also on the sustainability of agriculture, the economy and infrastructure in Howard County. He recently submitted a bill to the County Council detailing the reorganization, which will likely be voted on in March.
Wednesday, after a breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes flipped by Kittleman, the county executive kicked off the discussion by telling the group that his goal for the revamped office is to "enlarge [its] scope.
"We're not downplaying the environmental part of it, that's very important" he added, addressing what he said has been a common suspicion since he announced his idea.
Rather, Kittleman said, he wants to bring more stakeholders into the conversation. "I want to make sure that what we do in county government is not a hindrance to you, because we want to be helping you," he said. "I want to make sure you guys can continue to do what you're doing."
Many farmers cited what they see as a pattern of increasing regulations on agriculture as a concern.
Howie Feaga, the president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said he was particularly worried about rights for farmers who have placed their land in agricultural preservation, a program where the county or state buys development rights to a lot to ensure that it remains farmland. For the past year, controversy over whether mulching, composting and other wood-processing operations should be allowed on preserved farmland has been the subject of heated debate, and a task force is currently working on a report to the County Council with recommendations for how the county's zoning regulations should treat those operations.
"We need to have everyone recognize that the agricultural preservation parcels are just as important as non-preservation parcels," Feaga said. "There seems to be a lean toward taking rights away."
One solution might be better education about agricultural processes, said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat from west Columbia.
"I think it's unfortunate that we have a divide between farmers and folks who have moved out to the west and want to decide what farming is," Sigaty said. "Farming is a business... essentially, they've moved into a commercial district."
Sigaty said the county's zoning regulations regarding farming could benefit from a second look. "Let's make sure we didn't inadvertently do something we just didn't know we were doing," she said.
Martha Clark, who owns Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City and also sits on the mulching task force, said she thought the county should keep farming regulations as flexible as possible as it considered the future of agriculture. A decade ago, she noted, no one was thinking about creating a farm brewery or winery -- and now Howard County has several starting up.
"There may be things we haven't even thought of yet," Clark said. "We have to keep the definition of farming open-ended. We need a definition that... allows us to make a living."
Cathy Hudson, who owns a farm in Elkridge and sits on the mulching task force and the county's environmental sustainability board, said eastern agricultural properties shouldn't be left out of the discussion.
"If people are going to support farms in the west, they need to see farms in the east, too, to make that connection," she said.
One change Hudson sees happening now is an increased demand for organic, locally grown produce: "People really want to know where their food comes from."
John Dove, of Love Dove Farms in Woodbine, said he thought Howard has a unique opportunity to become a hub for locally grown food as well as for agritourism.
"We are in a great geographical location" between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, he said.
Dove and Clark said making farming possible for the next generation should be a high priority for the county.
"The biggest challenge nationwide is going to be that we have these younger people that are interested," said Dove. "Baltimore City has all these people that want to get into it, but then the issue is the price per land, per acre, and also I think the biggest thing too is infrastructure. Someone might have a big lot with 200 acres, but they don't want to put up a deer fence... that's a challenge that I'd like to see everyone come together and try to solve."
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"It behooves us to make sure young farmers can farm for a long time," Clark said. "And their kids, too."