At agriculture forum, Maryland farmers find a growing appreciation of their industry


Maryland farmers are harvesting a bumper crop of a new commodity: respect.

And they say it is overdue.

This was evident at the Governor's Agricultural Forum held last week at the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. attended the session, and for that he received a standing ovation.

Many of the more than 200 farmers and representatives of farm organizations in attendance remember the last time a similar event was held. It was 1993 and Gov. William Donald Schaefer was a no-show at his Governor's Conference on Maryland Agriculture.

That last week's forum was held at all was viewed by farmers as an acknowledgement by the state government of farming's important contributions to Maryland's economic health and the quality of life of its citizens.

"Just the fact that there was a forum and governor showed up was a big statement," said Robert Ramsburg, a dairy farmer who had traveled to the forum from Walkersville in Fredrick County. "It showed we are getting more respect."

Ehrlich talked sympathetically of farmers' woes in recent years.

He said farmers had been unjustly "demonized" and labeled as "the bad boys" by the previous administration of Parris N. Glendening, which blamed the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay almost entirely on nutrient runoff from farmland.

Farmers in the audience jumped from their chairs, thrust their arms in the air, cheered and applauded when Ehrlich said, "You will never be allowed to be demonized by this administration."

Ramsburg, 62, interpreted the governor's comments as an overdue apology to farmers who were blamed for the toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in Maryland waters during the summer of 1997.

"That's the way I took his comments," said Ramsburg. "And it felt pretty good to hear him say we weren't the bad boys. Sure, we were part of the problem, but we weren't the whole problem. Even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is now beginning to admit that."

During an interview the morning after the governor's speech, Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said farmers were "hit with a lot of undue criticism" in the past for the pollution problems of the bay.

He said the Pfiesteria outbreaks "were the incubator of the demonization of farmers."

"The governor's comments about demonization were a pretty fair assessment of what farmers went through for about eight years" under Glendening, Riley said.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of Department of Business and Economic Development, heaped more praise on farmers when he took his turn at the forum podium.

He said Maryland's "oldest industry" provides thousands of jobs while helping preserve the culture of the state's citizens.

Robert Hutchison, who farms about 3,000 acres near Cordova in Talbot County, said there were two times over the years when he considered getting out of farming.

"First, when [President] Jimmy Carter put an embargo on U.S. grain exports, and then when Governor Glendening blamed us for the bay pollution," he said.

Hutchison said the forum might prove to be beneficial to the industry.

"If they follow up on the recommendations coming out of the session, it has the potential to do a lot of good for agriculture," he said. "Right now, the people are talking the right game. We will have to wait and see if anything comes out of this."

Farmers and representatives of farm organizations, including bankers and extension agents, voted to prioritize more than 100 recommendations to boost the viability of Maryland agriculture over the next decade.

Priorities include:

Reopening and fully funding the University of Maryland soil testing laboratory.

Developing and implementing ways to reduce health insurance costs for agricultural businesses and farm families.

Extending the deer and geese hunting seasons throughout Maryland.

Developing a technical assistance "toolbox" for local officials on how to create zoning regulations that support traditional agriculture and allow for alternative agricultural uses.

Encouraging counties to offer tax credits for preserving farmland and ensure that the option also is available at the state level.

Eliminating part or all of the federal and state estate tax for agricultural enterprises.

Providing sufficient funding for cover crop programs.

Strengthening right-to-farm laws to offer farmers more protection from encroaching residential development.

Reducing the capital gains tax rate for land sold to young or new farmers.

The full list of recommendations was developed over the past nine months by the Agricultural Commission - a 24-member group composed of a cross-section of farming - that serves as an advisory board to the secretary of agriculture and the governor.

"Our vision is for this to be a 10-year plan," said Doug Green, chairman of the commission. "We hope to have action on some issues no later than five years."

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