If William Donald Schaefer had attended the Governor's Conference on Maryland Agriculture yesterday, he would have gotten an earful on how to improve the $12 billion industry he has called the state's largest.
But, to the disappointment and annoyance of many of the approximately 250 members of the agriculture community in attendance, Mr. Schaefer was a no-show.
"It was his meeting -- what could have been more important?" asked Maria Price-Nowakowski, owner of Willow Oak Herb Farm in Severn.
She suggested that the governor is not a strong advocate for farmers and that missing the session was a way of avoiding criticism.
The governor was tied up in a Board of Public Works meeting that started late and ran longer than expected, his office said. But the rumor that spread rapidly through the dining hall at the Marriott Hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport was that he was meeting with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
"What's more important, football or agriculture," grumbled several farmers.
Yesterday's session was billed as an update of the 1988 Governor's Conference on the Future of Agriculture. Industry representatives were invited to say what was on their minds, with the promise that their information and recommendations would play a large role in ensuring the future prosperity of Maryland's agriculture.
Farmers and other industry representatives took up the challenge and presented a variety of ideas that they thought would help enhance the economic climate for farmers.
They included a retail tax on food products, with the proceeds going to farmers to help them cover the cost of environmental protection requirements, and plans to stem residential migration to rural areas.
Ms. Price-Nowakowski called for the coordination of federal, state and county regulations pertaining to the preservation of farmland.
She expressed disappointment at Anne Arundel County's decision to approve construction of a low-income housing complex at the end of her 40-acre farm after she had placed her property in a farmland trust, without compensation.
"I felt like I did something great for the community," she said, "and nobody seemed to care."
As it was five years ago, agricultural land preservation was a hot topic of discussion at yesterday's session. There were repeated calls for higher payments from the state to farmers who place their land in the state's agricultural land preservation program.
Bob Jones, a retired University of Maryland cooperative extension agent for Carroll County who has a dairy farm in Harford County, complained that the state pays farmers only about half of the market value of their land when it's placed into the program, which prohibits future development on the land.
Agriculture Secretary Robert L. Walker told the group that Maryland has lost about 1,000 farms and about 150,000 acres of farmland since the 1988 conference. He said sales at the farm level have risen slightly over this period to $1.4 billion last year from $1.2 billion in 1988.
Despite the drought that plagued much of the Eastern Shore and the southern part of the state last summer, Mr. Walker said that he expects net farm income to year to be about the same as last year.