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State aid may be sought for farm services center WEST COUNTY -- Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon


It's a costly proposition in this time of tight budgets, but hardly a novel one -- plant the county's many agricultural services out where the farms are.

When farmers need crop reports, information on farming methods, seeds or soil management, they have to go to suburban Ellicott City.

To bring federal, state and academic services closer to farmers, the county's state legislators are considering seeking a $1 million state bond issue for a new agricultural services center in West Friendship.

"It would serve all the community," including farmers, builders, homeowners and schoolchildren, said county Farm Bureau President Martha Clark.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, himself a farmer and former Farm Bureau president, said, "It would be nice to go one TC place and do all of our business under one roof.

"It would make us a lot of more supportive of the programs that are offered to agriculture."

In addition it would provide a prominent location for agencies such as the Soil Conservation Service, which is vital to the protection of water and soil from pollution, said Mr. Feaga, a Republican who represents western Howard.

The estimated cost of $2.1 million would be split between the state and the county. The center would be an office building of about 20,000 square feet.

The structure would house the state's Soil Conservation District, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and Soil Conservation Service, both agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

Currently, the extension service is in a town house-type office park on Ellicott Mills Drive, and the state and federal offices are combined behind an auto dealership on U.S. 40, east of U.S. 29.

Besides creating "one-stop shopping" for agriculture-related services, the center could be expanded to create an outdoor classroom on modern farming techniques and the history of farming, said Robert Zeihm, district manager for the Howard Soil Conservation District.

The idea has caught on in Washington County, which has consolidated farm programs under one roof, and in Montgomery County, which has gone a step further by locating its center on a renovated farm, Mr. Zeihm said.

"[Montgomery County has] also incorporated into that concept a demonstration farm. They have crops being grown under various conservation practices, erosion control methods and water-handling methods. That's something we envision for our facility if it is approved."

The center will also make it more likely that the federal offices would stay in Howard County, Mr. Zeihm added. The USDA is considering consolidating offices under a congressional mandate, he said.

State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican who represents part of western Howard, said that although the center is a good idea, the center will require a lot of selling in Annapolis in these tight budget times.

"There has to be a real demonstrated need for any new bond money," he said, adding that legislators may want to be certain that the center's tenants could "pay enough money in rent to really pay the note."

The introduction of the legislation will also depend on the support of Sen. Charles H. Smelser, a Democrat who represents the western tip of Howard and chairs the Senate Capital Budget subcommittee.

At a county delegation meeting Jan. 4, legislators put off debate on the bond issue because Mr. Smelser was absent because of illness.

Reached last week, Mr. Smelser said that he wanted to learn more about the project before commenting.

"We're hopeful that the delegation will vote to move that forward," at its next meeting Jan. 27, Mr. Zeihm said.

If the bond issue is approved in Annapolis, then the county will likely issue bonds to cover its half of the cost, Mr. Feaga said.

The idea has been studied for about two years by a committee that included representatives from the would-be tenant agencies, as well as from the county fair board and the school system.

The committee concluded that the ideal site for the center would be the old Hebb Farm, across Route 144 from the county fairgrounds. The site is owned by the county Department of Recreation and Parks.

Committee members also proposed a name for the as-yet unfunded center: the Agricultural Center at West Friendship Park.

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