These two grant programs are actually helping farmers


Ronald Reagan probably put it best when he said that the most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Farmers in particular have long been distrustful of government. Many would instinctively place a protective hand over their wallet pockets whenever they would hear those words from visitors to their farms.

But sometimes the old gag line can ring true, as is the case with two grant programs - one federal, one state - aimed at providing money to farmers to help keep agriculture viable.

One example is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development office in Dover, Del. Officials there are taking grant applications from farmers in Maryland and Delaware for more than $20 million allocated to help farmers pay for value-added ventures, such as making ice cream out of milk and even advertising the value-added product.

"We don't get as many applications from Maryland and Delaware as we would like," said Ginger Murphy, head of the dual federal-state office. "And farmers can't get a grant if they don't apply."

And on the state level, the Board of Public Works approved last week $217,900 in cost-share funding to help farmers in six counties pay for projects that enhance environmental protection.

The money comes through the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program.

The program pays up to 87.5 percent of a farmer's cost of implementing practices such as constructing chicken or cow manure storage pits. Money also can be used for planting of grass buffers along waterways to absorb nutrient runoff from fields or installing fencing to keep animals from creeks and streams.

Since 1984, the state has paid $101 million in government cost-share grants. The funding was used to install more than 20,000 water quality management projects, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. The farmers' out of pocket expenditures totaled about $12 million.

During this fiscal year, which began July 1, the Board of Public Works has approved more than $3.5 million to help farmers pay for 413 on-farm projects.

"Farmers are very independent people, and you sometimes have to convince them of the value of a program to get them to go along," said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley.

Although he collects a government salary, Riley also operates a grain and poultry farm near Parsonsburg in Wicomico County.

Riley said distrust of the government by some farmers probably dates to the Great Depression and has been stoked over the years by such episodes as President Jimmy Carter placing an embargo on grain shipments to the former Soviet Union in 1980, which hindered their business.

"It's human nature to question, 'What are my obligations to participate in a government program and use state dollars?'" he said. "But this is changing. The vast majority of farmers are agreeable to participate in government programs."

Dairy farmers Lisa and Brad Kilby availed themselves to a federal grant to help launch an ice cream store near Rising Sun last year.

"It was a huge, huge help to us," Lisa Kilby said of the $50,000 they received from the value-added program. "We would not have been able to do the marketing we did without it. We used it for radio advertising, newspaper advertising and for signs to let people know we were here. We spent $3,000 on radio advertisement. It was worth it."

She said the money also paid for a laptop computer, a printer and other office equipment. They are erecting a 20-foot-tall ice cream cone model atop a 40-foot-tall farm silo. The ice cream store is on Strohmaier Lane near Rising Sun Elementary School. Closed for the season, it is scheduled to reopen in April.

Lisa Kilby said the store posted a small loss last year. But she is hopeful that it will break even this year and post a profit in 2007. By converting the milk into ice cream, she said, "We expect to get 100 percent more money for our milk."

Murphy said the value-added grant program was part of the 2002 national Farm Bill.

It was aimed at keeping agriculture strong before it disappears from the rural economy.

The plan works on the theory that farmers can boost their income by converting their milk into ice cream, wheat into bread and pigs into hams.

Since its origin, the program has issued eight grants in Maryland totaling $1.4 million.

Maryland farmers competed with those across the country for the funding, which would pay for half the cost of a project.

To keep the money from being gobbled up by large farms, Murphy said, $1.5 million is set aside this year for applications of grants up to $25,000 from small farms.

The deadline for all applications is March 31.

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