Economist to head Md. agriculture study


The University of Maryland announced yesterday the hiring of Robert Chase, a West Coast economist and economic development official, to head a 12-month study looking at the long-term future of the state's agriculture industry.

Chase was introduced to members of the Maryland Agricultural Commission during the group's monthly meeting at the state Department of Agriculture. The 22-member commission serves as a farm-advisory panel to the governor.

The study is designed to be the first step in the state's strategy to preserve Maryland's declining agriculture industry.

Agriculture, including the production of food and fiber, is Maryland's largest industry, generating $17.8 billion a year in business and sustaining more than 400,000 jobs, according to state figures.

Chase, 48, comes from Tacoma, Wash., where he operated Chase Economics, a private economic research company.

He said he has done industry analysis work for the states of Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Last year, he completed a study on the status of Washington's agriculture and food-processing industry.

Chase will work under the direction of Bruce Gardner, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Agricultural & Natural Resources Policy Center at College Park.

Gardner said the state Department of Agriculture has contributed $200,000 for the study, with another $60,000 coming from the university.

Chase will be a contract employee of the university. A school official said his salary will be about $70,000.

Chase also worked for the University of Washington School of Business, where he served as research director for a publication tracking economic issues in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He previously served as senior economist for the Washington Department of Economic Development.

The study was requested during the past session of the General Assembly by Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, who wants the state to develop a 20-year plan to safeguard Maryland farm industry.

Maryland lost 100 farms and 50,000 acres of farmland last year. At the end of 1999, Maryland had 12,400 farms and 2.1 million acres of farmland. Between 1989 and 1999, the state lost 8.7 percent of its farmland.

The 22-member commission has been critical of the state's agriculture policy in the past. Hank Passi, chairman of the group, noted that there was a Governor's Conference on Agriculture in 1993, "but there was no follow-up. Nothing happened. A lot of money was wasted."

Russell Watson, another commission member and the operator of a Prince George's County nursery, criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening for trying to do away with the state's tobacco farms. "Tobacco is the livelihood of Southern Maryland," he said.

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